Four young men are drafted into the Korean War in this impressive debut.
Told in four sections–or movements, as they’re called here–this traces the Korean War experience of four young men from rural Pennsylvania. The story opens with Sam Kovalchek leaving Calliope, where the previous summer an acrimonious dispute had left scarred relationships from which Sam is anxious to escape. The night of his departure, Sam makes three friends who are also bound for war. On the train to Camp Gordon, Sam tells Fran, Ben and Dick about the town he’s leaving behind and the event that has caused him so much grief. The second follows Ben, dim-witted and loyal, as his unit–which includes Fran and Dick–is engaged in battle. The third section follows Dick as he attempts to both recuperate from war wounds and reconcile with his father. The narrative comes full circle in the final movement, with Sam now a field medic at war’s end. Jaded and feeling hollow, Sam is deployed to Tokyo, where his unlikely friendships with a black GI and a Japanese ex-soldier help him heal. Though the narrative is cleverly constructed, with each section neatly dovetailing into the next, those focused on Dick and Ben, while affecting in their own ways, detract from the power of Sam’s metamorphosis from small-town boy to war-weary veteran.
Despite an opaquely depicted protagonist, the author treats this well-trod with sensitivity and intelligence, writing in subdued, crisp, poetic prose.