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Fiction

May 18, 1986|Winston Groom

ROMMEL & THE REBEL by Lawrence Wells (Doubleday: $17.95). Some time back, Lawrence Wells, publisher of the Yoknapatawpha Press in Oxford, Miss., came across an old local newspaper clipping that told of a 1937 visit to his state by several German military officers. What they had come to see was the Civil War battlefield at Brice's Crossroads, where Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest defeated a Union force twice his size. This seemingly insignificant little news item set Wells' creative hammers banging, and he pounded out "Rommel & the Rebel," an imaginary but convincing account of a pre-World War II visit to the United States by the Desert Fox himself.

As the tale begins, Erwin Rommel and his Nazi companions arrive in New York City, go to a New York Giants baseball game, climb skyscrapers, stroll around Central Park and do other touristy things that provide Wells a chance to set up some very funny scenes. But the real reason the future Feldmarschall of the Afrika Corps has come to America is to get a first-hand inspection of Forrest's tactical terrain, and soon Rommel finds himself cruising the dark country roads of north Mississippi, accompanied by a young U.S. Army escort officer, Lt. Max Speigner, a former German language major at Ole Miss, now assigned to collect intelligence on Nazi commanders.

There is an amusing episode in which Rommel is introduced to William Faulkner; the two play tennis, drink whiskey and visit the battlefields together, and at one point, Faulkner wryly informs Rommel that Forrest was the first wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which Faulkner describes as "Christian night riders who intended to purify the South of all outside influences." The irony of this information is not lost on the German, who sourly proclaims, "I am not political. I am a soldier."

The story cuts forward to World War II, and young Speigner is summoned to North Africa where Rommel is running roughshod over the British army, employing many of the strategies he admired in his study of Forrest. From this point on, the story becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Speigner and the Feldmarschall , with the American using his knowledge of Rommel's tactical eccentricities to outwit him, and Rommel doing his best to keep his jackboots a step ahead.

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