|Genre:||Literature & Fiction|
He stared at the ceiling in silence.
“Honey, I can help. I know I can.”
“No, you can’t.”
He heard her expel a breath in exasperation, and turned his back to her. The room began to spin.
Starkmann’s conscious mind had fallen asleep; his body was at rest, but some part of him, soul or consciousness, was travelling backwards in time. It was the same journey it had made on many nights before, ending at the same date and place, as if it had been condemned to ride a train with only one destination: a dusty red hill near the Cambodian border in September 21, 1969.
The past becomes the present; then is now.
I have, elsewhere and repeatedly, categorised former US Marine Corps captain, Vietnam vet and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Caputo as one of the finest writers on the surface of the planet today, a criminally underrated author when compared with the dross that gains most critical admiration. This book, which I have loved since I first read it some twenty years ago, is a perfect reason why.
It’s 1969; the Vietnam War is at its climax, and young men in America are being shoved into uniform and pushed into the meatgrinder, unless they’re rich and/or well-connected enough to avoid the draft.
Christian Starkmann is the son of a militantly anti-war preacher, a young man with an assured future, a college education and a privileged life. But Starkmann can’t stand his loveless, domineering father; and when his childhood friend, an Ojibwa called Boniface George St Germaine, alias Bonny George, who had saved him from drowning, is drafted, Starkmann feels compelled to throw everything away and follow him into the Army. Starkmann returns, Bonny George does not, and Starkmann blames himself.
Cut to a dozen years later. Christian Starkmann is thirty two years old, and works for a lumber company as a scout, living in the same part of the country he had frequented in his youth with Bonny George. He’s married to a social worker, June, and is father to two daughters. It’s a normal life, it seems...but there is a street in town Starkmann cannot force himself to drive through, a street with a Vietnam War memorial on it, with the names of the townspeople who have died in that war.
Through the shortening days of that autumn of his thirty-second year, Christian Starkmann’s sanity begins to disintegrate as the ghosts of his past resurface, gibbering and mouthing. As his personal worldview degenerates to paranoia, it costs him his job, and compels him to surround his wooded property with barbed wire and turn it into a defensive parameter. And over and over, his mind begins to confuse past and present, and as in the piece I’ve quoted above, “then is now.”
The book runs on three levels simultaneously. One is Starkmann, his mental implosion and his ultimate descent into violent insanity. Another is the world of his wife June, trying to understand her husband, desperate to help him, and at the same time terrified of what his actions are doing to her family and their daughters. And a third thread is Wawiekumig, an Ojibwa medicine man who is known to the whites as Louis St Germaine and who happens to be Bonny George’s grandfather. Wawiekumig is sad in his own way, because the tribal way of life is dying before his eyes, and there’s nobody to carry on the culture of his people.
It’s difficult to write much of this book without giving too much away. But in the character of Starkmann, and even more that of his wife June, Caputo has created very real human beings; the cold, tortured man, and his earthy, intensely brave wife. And hovering over their shoulders is a ghost whose name Christian Starkmann dares not acknowledge to himself, and of whose existence June Starkmann is entirely unaware.
This isn’t a book about the Vietnam War, directly; but it is a book about what war does to people, and how they can never escape it. It’s the final proof of the old adage:
War doesn’t end when the shooting stops.