A Vietnam veteran wrestles with the demons of his war as his son goes off to fight in Iraq.
In this debut novel, Estes (A Field of Innocence, 1987) introduces Mike Kelly, an angry and occasionally violent Vietnam veteran–turned-journalist. His relationship with his teenage son Jake is fraught with conflict over sports and expectations, and Mike’s wife, Claire, is prepared to walk out if he continues to avoid getting needed treatment and therapy at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. In addition, Mike’s editor is losing patience with his inconsistent performance at the paper. When Jake joins the Marines, Mike wants to protect his son from repeating his wartime experiences but slowly accepts that he cannot stop the youth from deploying to Iraq in the early years of the war there. Instead, Mike decides to follow, traveling to the war zone as an embedded journalist. Jake resents his father’s presence, seeing it as one more attempt at controlling his life, but when the two are caught in a battle together, their relationship is strengthened through fighting side by side. Estes skillfully presents the effects of war on families, both in the moment (Claire and Jake’s girlfriend, Megs, are involved in anti-war protests) and decades after the conflict has ended, through the flashbacks and terrors that Mike contends with on a daily basis. The characters are rich and complex, with occasional bursts of witty dialogue (“Its classrooms are bulging with the leaders of tomorrow, who often are the smartasses of today”). Battle scenes are vividly drawn, keeping the reader caught up in the action (“Jake stops, sand beating at his front, kneels, and sets the butt of his gun in the sand, balancing it against his body”) and Estes’ firsthand knowledge of the experience of war. (The author is a Vietnam veteran.) At the same time, the locker-room nature of Jake’s conversations with his friends and the depiction of the Marines in Iraq can be excessive, closer to tedious vulgarity than to stark realism.
A complex novel of the past and the future, fathers and sons, war and redemption, and the devastating impact of large-scale violence on both the perpetrators and the victims.