Yet another change of pace for the versatile Texas-born author, now living in Japan.
Cullin’s fiction has ranged widely, and results have been mixed, but he seemed to have found his footing in A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005), a dazzling fictional portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in old age. Here, Cullin examines a long, happy marriage imperiled by illness and by the resurgent shadows of suppressed memories. When Korean War veteran Hollis Adams learns that his wife Debra has ovarian cancer, he initially hesitates to fulfill her request that he confirm their closeness by writing his life story. It’s partly because the Arizona retiree is troubled by dreams filled with visions of wounded, wasted creatures and blighted landscapes, harsh reminders of his distinctly unheroic combat experiences almost half a century ago. The emerging memories cluster around the brash, macho figure of Bill McCreedy, the Randall P. McMurphy figure of the battalion in which he and Hollis served, and a then-unsuspected link to Hollis’s future. The author works hard to juxtapose Hollis’s reluctant memories of an “intensely surreal two weeks at war,” which ended when he was wounded but later led to his stateside visit to abrasive, valiant McCreedy’s hometown and then a chance meeting that shaped the years that followed. This surprisingly tepid novel has two partly redeeming elements: several affecting scenes in which Hollis and Debra labor to believe that they really do deserve to live happily, despite the mocking presence of survivor’s guilt; and Cullin’s subtle examination of the complex emotional condition identified by his fine title, which refers to both Hollis’s literally troubled sleep and to returning servicemen’s hopeful visions of lasting security and prosperity. Yet the story never really moves beyond its beginnings, prompting a suspicion that the author couldn’t decide what to make of its narrative and thematic possibilities.
A misstep in Cullin’s unpredictable, adventurous and, alas, frustratingly uneven oeuvre.