(Nixon makes the case for a U.S. invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970)
It is sometime in 2010 and a five year old boy has been abandoned at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel International Airport. So begins Salvatore Scibona’s second novel, THE VOLUNTEER a searing story that spans over forty years from the Vietnam War to the post- 9/11 Afghanistan encompassing four generations of fathers and sons that takes the reader from Latvia, Vietnam, Queens, New Mexico among many locations. Once the boy is introduced wandering the airport as others try to determine his identity and story, Scibona introduces Elroy Heflin, a former convict who resorted to a myriad of lifestyles from stocking a grocery store, slinging heroine, sleeping in shelters and on the street to survive. He was soon arrested and joined the army to get his life straight. Later, he is assigned to the Office of Defense Cooperation attached to the American Embassy in Riga, Latvia.
Heflin will develop a relationship with a woman named Evija who upon becoming pregnant refuses Heflin’s offer to marry. Five years later while serving in Afghanistan, paying one- third of his pay in child support he learns that Evija has abandoned their son Janis who he sees twice a year and wants him to take custody. Heflin will take Janis to the airport to catch a flight to London but decides to leave him in a toilet cubicle at the Hamburg airport before continuing on his way home.
Scibona is a master of shifting scenes from one character to the next. In the first major instance he moves on from Heflin for about half the book and focuses on Mr. Tilly or Vollie Frade who was Heflin’s guardian until he had reached the age of eighteen. In telling Vollie’s life story we learn that he too was an unwanted son, born to aging cattle ranchers outside of Davenport, IA and at the age of seventeen forged his parent’s signature and joined the Marines winding up in Vietnam. Vollie is a complex character who is preoccupied with erasing his identity. Throughout the novel there are scenes where he seems to be taking himself away. For example, when he is a small boy his parents burn his clothes to prevent an outbreak of meningitis, for Vollie they are burning him. During his tenure in the Marines, he finds himself captured in Cambodia, a mission the government says does not exist – then does he? Later, during bouts of PTSD he again questions his existence.
(US soldiers burn a wooden structure in a village in eastern Cambodia in May 1970)
Scibona’s description of the war in Southeast Asia is reminiscent of the works of Dennis Johnson, Karl Marlantes, Michael Herr, and Tim O’Brien. It is raw in conception digging deeply into the stupidity of the American role in Vietnam. The scenes described as Vollie acts as a “Santa Claus” type of character driving in a convoy distributing mail, supplies, and anything else needed to the front lines reflects the absurdity of war. The discussion surrounding the US invasion of Cambodia and what occurs has a “Apocalypse Now” type of reality as do other scenes in the novel, particularly after he returns from Vietnam and Vollie finds himself ensconced in Queens, NY conducting a spy mission on a Social Security swindler who may turn out to be a Nazi fugitive.
Intergenerational misery dominates the plot as we move from place to place. A priest trying to crack the mysteries of Janis’ birth in Germany, a commune in Nevada and on and on. This is a very difficult novel to follow. At times it feels as if you are reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel taking place in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Despite a number of difficulties there are a number of portrayals of America that are priceless. The 1973 description of Queens, NY is priceless from the stoops, woman in house dresses, pickup basketball, church fellowship etc. Scibona has captured the neighborhood perfectly and this goes along with his striking social commentary.
The characters are lost in their own worlds especially Vollie whose view of life is one who is disappointed in himself and life in general as moving from one lie to another no matter how honest some appeared to be. Lorch, the spy handler’s quoting of scripture really plays no purpose, but he seems to do so each time he appears. Louisa, like Vollie is saddled with the burdens of the past as she cares for a baby out of a commune that practiced free love. Elroy, as he matures, like Vollie he replays scenes of a boyhood of abandonment.
The phrase that captures the essence of the novel is Vollie thinking about how “am I nobody from nowhere” as he and other characters try to maneuver in lives that do not turn out the way they want. The concept of identity appears repeatedly – for Vollie does he have one since he tries to cut himself off from everyone and everything.
To Scibona‘s credit his descriptions are often entertaining, but also sarcastic and draining. He has a keen eye for detail and many of his scenes seem similar to other works of literature and film. Overall, it was a difficult book to read, and I would only recommend it for someone who has a great deal of time to devote to understanding what the author is trying to say and enjoys a dark story that can be very painful.
(President Nixon announces the entry of US troops into Cambodia)