In McClements’ debut novel, an elderly veteran of the first world war reveals a lifetime of secrets, pain, and regret.
In 1974, a well-dressed man in his late 70s named Sean Devaney is contemplating committing suicide. Patrick Brennan, a dissolute stranger looking to perform a good deed, stumbles upon Devaney and intervenes. Over a bottle of Irish whiskey, Brennan coaxes Devaney into discussing his life story and the cause of his anguish. Devaney begins with his childhood as a poor farm boy in upstate New York. Through a combination of hard work and a bequest from a local patroness, Devaney is able to attend Columbia University with the goal of becoming a journalist. Devaney finds a circle of school pals, and together, they have the time of their lives. Their undergraduate fun comes to an end when the United States enters World War I, and the friends all enter the Marine Corps. Following boot camp, they are sent to France, where they encounter the horrors of trench warfare. Devaney, wounded in battle, begins A Farewell to Arms–style romance with a nurse named Lynn. However, this novel is a bit more complex than the classic war story it initially seems to be. Devaney and his friends encounter heinous crimes committed under the cover of the chaos of war. In the postwar years, the four veterans act to rectify these injustices. The plot is full of unexpected twists—even if they occasionally come about thanks to a deus ex machina—with street fights and armed combat providing plenty of action. McClements’ strong knowledge of history adds verisimilitude to these scenes. While Devaney is a strong, pathos-filled character, many of the secondary characters are thinly drawn, particularly female characters, who say things like “you are no gentleman, but you are somewhat handsome and quite dashing” and usually do nothing but sit around waiting for men to bed them or save them from other, coarser men. Ultimately, though, Devaney’s twisting path and tortured soul will keep readers engaged to the end.
A historical novel that fires off a few surprises.