A semiautobiographical novel about a Vietnam War veteran’s recovery at an Army hospital in Texas.
Sgt. Frank Riley is the only survivor of an explosion that killed his squad. He makes it through an operation, the first of many, with broken bones and part of his left leg gone. He spends the bulk of his recuperation at Brooke General Army Hospital back in the States. But surviving isn’t only about overcoming surgery and morphine withdrawal; Riley must also cope with a cruel orderly, a callous and ruthless nurse, and a young, ambitious doctor who cuts the patients’ meds. Author Gleeson (Warriors and Widows, 2006) fully explores the Vietnam War setting even though most of the novel takes place stateside. The war is presented as memories filled with blood and death, including soldiers nearly being killed by friendly fire. A novel about wounded veterans critical of Vietnam—and its “worthless war”—is hardly surprising, but Gleeson’s work isn’t heavily politicized. Many of Riley’s hardships have little or nothing to do with U.S. troops in Vietnam. Instead, they involve drivers narrowly avoiding a stalled bus transporting wounded men on a snowy road at night or a fellow patient and amputee who tortures Riley for the fun of it. The story is occasionally depressing—it is set in a hospital, after all—it’s also prone to elevating bouts of optimism, like the vet whose wife is by his bedside every day, the five-gallon cooler of “juice,” which contains a secret and hearty amount of grain alcohol, and Mary, the woman who catches Riley’s eye. But most of all, there’s Riley, who doesn’t grumble or let others see that he’s in pain. It’s his resolve that drives the narrative, and when he decides that life can exist beyond his shattered body, readers can rest assured that he will fight until he’s living it.
An absorbing story about an indomitable, nearly immobilized Vietnam vet who inches toward recovery.