In this military thriller, a boy grows to maturity with violence, first at home, as its victim, and, finally, through martial arts and the military, as its master.
As a child in the 1960s, Paul Brett was often beaten by his vicious, drunk father. On his paper route he meets a man named Draeger, who teaches him pentjak silat—Indonesian martial arts. By the end of high school, Paul masters the techniques of this discipline. A run-in with the law leads him to enlist in the Army. He ends up in Vietnam with the Green Berets, operating secretly behind enemy lines in Laos. One mission goes horribly wrong; Paul goes AWOL, but he’s captured and thrown into a military prison in Maine, where he has to fight for his life to survive. This book is hard to put down, and at times, especially during scenes set in Vietnam, the realism is startling and palpable. The challenges of Paul’s life—emotional, physical and psychological—are compelling. First-time novelist Snyder uses a spare, direct vocabulary for the action scenes, though he sometimes switches to an elevated tone (“fathomless despair,” “mother’s watery womb”) that jars. And there are narrative gaps. After Paul begins his martial arts training, any mention of his home life ceases until many years have passed, including a pivotal incident when he first confronts his father’s abuse. After Draeger dies, Paul drops martial arts, an important part of his identity, and pentjak silat isn’t mentioned again until he is in prison, many years later. The fight scenes at the prison mostly take the form of visions, presented via various images, but are sketched with too little description of the physical confrontations.
A fast-paced, sometimes uneven, thoroughly engrossing story of a journey through pain and violence.