Two brothers, ages 68 and 70, revisit their lives as their father lies dying.
The book’s events cover one week, during which World War II veteran William Quinlan dies and his two sons, Robert and Jimmy, meet for the first time in decades. The sons’ lives have gone in wildly different directions: Jimmy broke ties with his family and went to Canada in the 1960s, choosing a bohemian life as a leather crafter and an open marriage. Robert went to Vietnam in an attempt to win his father’s approval. Now a college professor, he remains haunted by memories of the one soldier he killed and the Vietnamese girlfriend he never saw again; his marriage has gone emotionally stagnant. Both marriages reach crisis points in the week of William’s death, and both sons begin to resolve emotional issues left hanging since the Vietnam years. Meanwhile, Robert is headed toward a potentially violent confrontation he doesn’t see coming thanks to a chance encounter with an unhinged homeless man who has war-related scars of his own. Though this subplot adds suspense, the book’s resonance comes from the two sons’ struggles to make peace with their histories. The climactic scene, Robert’s conversation with his father on his deathbed, is devastating and beautifully written.
Butler (The Empire of Night, 2014, etc.) risks taking on too many weighty themes for one novel: the shadow of Vietnam, the push and pull of father-son relationships, the pitfalls of long-term marriages, and the psychic toll of aging. But with some compelling characters, Butler pulls it all together into a story that’s both complex and meaningful.