A Vietnam vet lets his life slip out of control, to the disgust of his WWII vet father.
Like a lot of his fellow soldiers, Walt has had trouble getting his life back together. Barely scraping by in the small downstate Illinois burg of Watega, he spends a lot of time drinking and acting like “a professional Vietnam veteran.” His father, Big Walt, won a Medal of Honor at Normandy and sees the Vietnam-era soldiers as whining losers, which is pretty much what Walt is. When Walt got back from the war, his father gave him control of the family contracting business, but the large, moneymaking operation has dwindled along with the town’s fortunes. Now Walt mostly just drives around waiting to get a call on his cell phone from someone who needs a toilet unclogged. Big Walt never forgave him for the business’s failure, nor for accidentally shooting to death his own son during a hunting trip. (Described in the opening pages and rarely referred to afterward, this cataclysmic event haunts the background.) Walt leaves his wife and what he has left of a job to blow town, trying to start over again, but he gets entangled in a backwoods drug scheme. Buckman (Names of Rivers, 2002, etc.) has come a long way from his impressive debut, Water in Darkness (2001); he’s reined in some of his more florid touches and let the characters breathe, but he retains his unerring sense of place. For better or for worse, Watega is a town that sticks in the mind, especially the bar where the vets sit listening to classic-rock radio, turned down by the barkeep “only for Bears games and when Turner Classic Movies showed The Sands of Iwo Jima.”
Overstuffed with detail, but always the right ones: a messy kind of perfect.