Corey’s debut novel follows a young soldier’s sentimental journey to manhood.
This first-person tale starts in 1953 as the 18-year-old Ted Byrum trains to become an Army Airborne paratrooper. He’s the son of a boozy but hardworking father and devout homemaking mother from a poor section of West Springfield, Mass. Byrum’s a naïve but keen observer and quick learner, and his chief ambition is to discover what it means to “be a man”—an injunction his father voices when putting him aboard the train to Fort Campbell, Ky. The training-camp setting supports the plot’s key conflict, as Byrum learns how and when to fight and how and when not to. He has a knack for making quick friendships and also for getting into trouble by speaking his mind. However, he’s also a sensitive soul, constantly fighting back tears and discovering the poetic aspects of routine matters; as a result, similes wink like taillights at every turn (“Father twirled the cigarette through his fingers like a baton”). Corey ably captures the relative innocence of the 1950s era, even as he takes on such subjects as bullying, racism, homosexuality and moral authority. The result, however, sometimes reads like a Hardy Boys mystery laced with profanity, mild sexual content, drinking, fistfights and Catholic Church services. Corey makes Byrum a character worth caring about, but peripheral players are often stereotypical: Mess-hall managers at two different military bases are named Cookie, and both are huge African-American men with gentle demeanors, bright white teeth and drawling southern accents. The pace is lively, as the author brackets his scenes in 102 chapters, each just three or four pages long. The multitude of transitions, however, spawns a few chapter-ending teasers that amount to spoilers. Corey sometimes crams too much back story into characters’ letters and dialogue, and he adds three epilogues to summarize the characters’ subsequent lives. Overall, Byrum’s adventures are highly entertaining, but they occasionally stretch believability. This aspect, along with the narrative’s maudlin tone, will likely cause readers to either love this book or dismiss it out of hand.
An often engaging military novel that’s best suited for an older audience seeking a sweet taste of the good old days.