Krivák (The Sojourn, 2011, etc.) returns to home ground in this elegiac story of rural life in a time of turmoil.
If this were Turgenev, Krivák’s characters would be peasants, sturdy caretakers of the soil with a sure awareness that life is hard and fleeting. As it is, the Vinich clan, descended of a Slovak immigrant who saw all he cared to of war in the trenches of Galicia, is a salt-of-the-earth breed, unassuming and mostly steady, even a little wealthy “in a town where land meant wealth.” Bo, perhaps the steadiest of them all, goes off to college to read the Greeks and learn a little about the world beyond their narrow valley in the Endless Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania; he returns home to take his place among the sawyers and farmers, even as the patriarch slides toward death and his brother, Sam, ships off to Vietnam, there to be lost—missing in action, the official forms say. Krivák’s modest story finds Bo trying to do the right thing by all concerned while living up to some of his book-learned ideals; called on to act heroically, he does so while otherwise serving as the guardian of a fragile mother, the preserver of family memory, and, indeed, the beacon to guide his brother home. In one of the book’s most affecting moments, he travels to West Virginia to meet a member of Sam’s unit, who evokes the terror of Vietnam: “You want to talk about ghosts? Fucking VC….Not a sound in that jungle except the sticks we broke on the ground and our boots when we pulled them out of the mud.” Should they erect a tombstone? Like Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, set in a neighboring country and addressing some of the same themes, this is a story about love and loyalty, with moments of sudden violence and great beauty.
A simple story, on its face, but full of resounding depths: a dark commemoration of a dark time but offering the slim hope that things will get better.