“Axel, I said to myself, you are drawn too easily down the wrong path.”
Axel, the protagonist in poet Anthony Kobal’s debut novel The Second Ring is a satisfyingly conflicted character. He comes from a family with a distinguished military tradition. Like all of Germany they were caught in the economic nightmare that existed between the World Wars, when the value of a carrot could change several times a day and currency had to be bundled into basic units of exchange.
As a cadet at Heidelberg Axel is already aware that he is Uranier and attracted to other men. He is recruited by Baron von Halbsmann, a relic of Junker aristocracy, to play naked doggy sex games, which pay Axel’s way through the academy. Shame and need reshape his sexual self as he becomes a soldier and officer.
Axel is a courageous enough soldier: he becomes a paratroop officer, and saves the life of one of his men during a jump. He takes his leadership very seriously, often even pompously, with the untroubled presumption of superiority characteristic of most who occupy a position of power within an exceptionalist, elitist culture.
Although indifferent to his country’s politics, even at war, Axel’s certainty that Germany will win the war gives him all the compass he needs to fulfill his role in the conflict. He and his troops are stationed in Norway, where he becomes obsessed with a Norwegian collaborator, Klaus, who is the Aryan physical ideal personified.
The relationship between Axel and Klaus forms the core of the story, and provides the common ground for the clever dual meaning of the novel’s title — the second ring is both the second sphincter in a man’s ass, and one of the components in the Enigma machine used by the Nazis to encrypt messages.
Kobal’s writing is colorful, creating an episodic wartime montage of the mystical and the mundane. Soldiers burn a brand on their hips with the troop insignia in a declaration of brotherhood. Axel loses a boot pushing against a truck stuck in mud. In one utterly compelling scene, a propaganda film team from Berlin comes to shoot footage showing the noble unity of Norwegian and German soldiers, and Klaus becomes the star of the project.
The war itself, while always present as the context of the story, is not a dominant presence. There are few military skirmishes. Instead, the bureaucracy, the routines, and the petty intrigues of status and privilege occupy the characters’ lives.
I had some difficulty with the book, too. The book is episodic in nature, and character arc occasionally loses some of its shape because of it. The prologue is not really a prologue, but a key moment from the climax, which irritated me more than it probably should have.
The Second Ring is a strong first novel with an unusual plot, an interesting WWII story centered on a deeply flawed protagonist and his obsessive love for another soldier.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker