He wore his new glasses and his service uniform….He couldn’t get used to the pressure of the temples against his skull, and though he could see clearly for the first time in years, the hugeness of things overwhelmed him and plunged him into fits of nausea…. The other passengers were in sharper focus than he desired: he could see the wax in their ears, the cracked capillaries on their noses; indeed he felt he could see their intentions and dark purposes.
Staff Sergeant Malick is on his way home from his tours in Vietnam, and he’s not doing so well. In addition to the new glasses, he’s adjusting to the idea that the plane he’s on is almost certain to not crash, that the car he’s in will not hit a booby trap – “That no one in this world truly meant him harm.” And he’s worried that his mother will have some kind of party for his homecoming. He’s not in the mood for a party. He’s a man with secrets, “secrets that he never intended to share, though for his sake or that of the people he loved he could never be absolutely sure.” We’ve learned to call that PTSD now. Back then, it didn’t really have a name.
During the course of his welcome home party, we’re given a look at how he’s lived the past several years. He fell in love for the first time in Australia, and got his heart broken. He killed someone in Vietnam. He visited home after his first tour, while his father was still alive but was gaunt with cancer, and immediately signed up for a second tour. The story moves around in time, keeping us informed by use of his titles (a technique I like, though I still find the zigzagging timeline to be a bit convoluted): he’s Adlai Malick first, then Private, then Corporal, and Sergeant, and then, now, Adlai again as he finds an empty room in the basement of a house full of friends he no longer knows, a house where is dead father’s memory still haunts.
This was the story that convinced me to take a few days off. I have such high expectations of One Story, after all. It isn’t that the story is bad. It’s fine. It’s a bit of a workshop story, except for the awkward timeline, which would never get past a workshop (and I love it when editors of One Story calibre allow for some coloring outside the lines). And considering how many terrific stories One Story has sent me lately, they’re allowed a dud now and then. That sounds bitchier than I intended. It’s not a dud. It’s a fine story. I don’t particularly like war stories. Especially Vietnam war stories.
I love that One Story publishes work of MFA candidates like Jordan. I love his bio: “When he was a boy, he once dug a neck-deep hole in his mother’s garden and filled it with water. He then stood in it until all the water had seeped into the earth. This experience prepared him in untold ways for life as a fiction writer.”
I love how he explains, in his Q&A with One Story, how difficult the research for this story was. Not the details of the war, but the little things: “what would a Marine have called his rations? His time away from his unit? What was the name of the local high school in that part of Oregon in 1965? Where might a working class guy from Edinburgh have worked in the 1950s?” I remember doing some lighter-weight research like that for a story I wrote: what’s a working class town and a low-key ski resort near Denver? What kind of root beer would’ve come in glass bottles in 1985 New England or Denver? (I never found the answer to that question, in spite of locating a self-proclaimed root beer historian).
He also explains the origins of the story, in the experiences of present-day soldiers returning from current wars, and in a character in another piece who needed a backstory. I can appreciate what went into this story.
So I feel like I’m kicking a puppy when I say it didn’t do much for me, but I felt it didn’t really deliver much substance beyond a boilerplate homecoming story, flavored with a son’s yearning for paternal approval that never comes. The girlfriend is a slight twist, but that felt like something out of a WWII movie. Again, YMMV. Someone without my biases might enjoy it a lot. I hope so, because it’s well written, and obviously grown with love and care. I regret it just isn’t my particular cup of tea.