In Putegnat’s (Laguna, 2006) novel, a history professor and his cohorts investigate the remains of a soldier found in a German forest.
Tom Campbell leads a self-involved life as a tenured associate professor at tiny Graffton College in Huntsville, Texas: “To his few friends, he was quiet and insular, to his students, easily annoyed and annoying, to the college administration, arrogant and insubordinate. And to all three, he seemed to want to be somewhere else and ever unhappy about it.” But his ordered existence begins to crumble after the death of his father, Charles Campbell, whom he rarely visited despite the fact that he lived only an hour away. Tom has little interest in the contents of his dad’s old house, but Elly Asher, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, retrieves some old ledgers from it. Inside are handwritten passages that Tom initially thinks are the ramblings of a senile mind, but Elly discovers that they’re actually the coded story of Charles’ life. The elder Campbell had always told Tom that he spent World War II stateside as a supply officer in the Army. It turns out that his military history ties into a case involving the decades-old remains of a soldier in Germany. Soon, Tom, Elly, and U.S. Army Warrant Officer Bob Vardis, who’s officially investigating those remains, join forces to find out who Charles really was. Putegnat creates a small group of admirable but flawed characters: Tom is shown to be a poor boy who never recovered from his unpleasant experience as an Ivy League student; Elly is portrayed as having once escaped an abusive boyfriend; and Bob is depicted as a stellar soldier who let his own son drift away. Then there’s the late Charles, whose ledger reveals the many secrets he’d kept, even from his own son. With deliberate pacing, the author unspools the stories of how the characters all came to be where they are in the present, yet he keeps the central mystery alive right up until the satisfying twist ending. Throughout, he emphasizes the future possibilities in his characters’ lives, not just the missed opportunities.
A thought-provoking novel that asks probing questions about human connection.