Whiting winner Nuñez (A Feather on the Breath of God, 1995, etc.) spins a moving tale about the unlikely friendship between a recently successful young writer and the old neighbor who seeks her.
On the publication of her first book, the unnamed narrator begins to receive letters from friends and old fans. Some are well-wishers she once knew, while others want advice or assistance in becoming writers themselves. Rouenna is both, a woman who grew up in the same Staten Island project, but whose life took a dramatically different turn when she became a nurse and went to Vietnam. At first, Rouenna asks for help in writing her life story. The narrator instinctively refuses, but a relationship nevertheless ensues. Only when Rouenna commits suicide, however, does the narrator—recently preoccupied by a failed romance of her own that sent her running to New England to teach, with periodic visits to Rouenna down south—begin to reflect on the meaning of their friendship. Pleasing though the story of this friendship is, the subtext of Rouenna’s many harrowing tales of Vietnam is more interesting, most of the language and tension in these sections coming from the vast amount of Vietnam literature that the narrator admits to having studied. Vietnam, it seems, is America’s repository of trauma. The narrator worries that the real event may be buried under its many literary uses, but this reservation does not prevent her from pressing it into service as well. Rouenna is real, but she is also the narrator’s sharer; Rouenna’s possible post-traumatic stress disorder is kin to the chrysalis that the narrator crawls into when her romance falls apart. Rouenna’s death allows the narrator to transform her completely into a character who is at once another person and a mirror image of her own haunted self.
A sad, touching tale of friendship and a smart, subtle dialogue on just where a culture’s stories come from.