Father and son jointly relate their experiences when the younger man joins the Marines.
To escape Dad's constant meddling, John leaves suburban Boston after high-school graduation in 1999 and heads for Marine Corps training on Parris Island, South Carolina. Novelist father Frank (Saving Grandma, 1997, etc.) expresses concern and embarrassment; the Schaeffers are the affluent sort who send their kids to college, not the military. Personal narratives and letters by both men chronicle the period from August through November, when John graduates. Both are gifted writers: the father open about his flaws, the son a skillful and humorous observer of Corps life. Life on PI begins with complete disorientation: yelling, panic, constant exercise, long sleepless stretches, not enough food, and no time references bewilder the recruits. Back home, Dad has to defend his son's choice to insensitive neighbors. Things gradually change. John accepts the discipline from his four drill instructors, succeeds with the physical discipline, and loves the intense unity. Raised in Switzerland, Frank develops a patriotic burst for the US, expressed in an appreciation for our freedoms and applied to local political issues. He befriends other Marine families and comes to revile Bill Clinton. John loses 12 pounds and fantasizes about Burger King. The recruits lack the time and energy to make friendships, but they form a protective bond. To graduate, they must remain calm in a gas chamber, survive a swim test with full gear, and pass a difficult rifle exam. In the final pages, John is doing advanced training in Florida, and Frank’s planned visit is derailed by 9/11. Though worried after the terrorist attack, he writes, “At least I knew that I could look the men and women in uniform in the eye. My son was one of them.”
Dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny, beautifully written and deftly constructed, deeply affecting in its honest portrayal of the authors’ passions: a stunning achievement.