PAYBACKS by Christopher Britton


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Anatomy of a 1971 Marine Corps court martial--often engrossing up through the trial itself, increasingly unsatisfying and blurry thereafter. At a military training base in San Diego recruit Loren Collins dies during the middle of the night. The cause? Internal injuries, apparently brought on by a severe beating to the stomach. And when star-recruit William Johnson claims to have seen Collins being assaulted with a rifle butt by Staff Sergeant Roger Markey, the military prosecutors zero in on Sgt. Markey--even though no one else corroborates Johnson's evidence, even though Markey is known to be especially caring (if fiercely rigorous) towards his men. Did dedicated drill-instructor Markey kill meek recruit Collins? Capt. Mike Taggart, a weary Marine Corps defense counsel (and Viet vet), doesn't think so. But the time and circumstances seem tilted against quiet, stoical Markey: the country's growing anti-war sentiment prejudices many people against the tough drill-instructor; this mood, heightened when Collins' guilt-ridden, dove-ish sister (she snubbed her marine brother) commits suicide, is fueled by TV news-reporter Veronica (""Ronnie"") Rasmussen; and it later emerges that Markey was court-martialed in 1969 Vietnam for killing another marine (accidentally) in a fist-fight. So Mike has to work hard at building up Markey's defense--while lending support to Markey's wife and kids. His marriage suffers from the strain, especially since wife Cathy resents Mike's refusal to pursue conventional success in the civilian-law world. He begins a rather drippy affair with newswoman Ronnie--who slowly moves away from her anti-Markey virulence. But, though several of these angles provide some passing tension or character-interest, the trial itself is a disappointment--bringing forth little new information or illumination. (The motivations of mendacious eye-witness Johnson remain particularly fuzzy.) Even more important, Britton's themes--the scars/sacrifices of Vietnam vets, the small-mindedness of some anti-military biases, the self-serving hypocrisies of military officialdom--don't come together in any coherent or dramatic way: the windup is feeble and wishy-washy. Very uneven military melodrama, then--though first-novelist Britton, a former Marine Corps officer and military defense counsel, offers convincing scenes and backdrops along the way.

Pub Date: May 23rd, 1985
Publisher: Donald Fine