A man’s stories of Vietnam and his unique ability to absorb other people’s personalities may help authorities locate a terrorist in Schenck’s (The Dark Diceman, 2012, etc.) religious thriller.
Special Agent Ted Alignman, desperate to stop Mark Evans, the American leader of Islamic terrorists, finds himself at a Colorado mental hospital. It seems that Abel Jarrett, one of the residents, knew Evans during the Vietnam War, before he converted to Islam. Jarrett, an “absorber of personalities,” tells a story of struggling with his own identity, as Evans’ controversial ideas on religion garner him followers, and a mystical figure known as the Birdcatcher appears to Jarrett in visions. A crime scene at the beginning of the novel—Alignman witnesses the aftermath of a massacre attributed to the “Evanites”—is but a tease, a catalyst for Jarrett to relay his Vietnam history to the agent; his doctor, Peterson; and Worthington, a lawyer and fellow veteran. This leads to seemingly endless philosophical discussions of religious ideology among soldiers while the Evans subplot takes a back seat. That’s not necessarily a narrative drawback, though: Throughout his visions, Jarrett meets people already revealed as personalities, a brilliantly existential experience in which he’s essentially conversing with himself (and, to be sure, he speaks with a version of himself in dreams). It’s also a literal interpretation of an inner struggle, as two sergeants, Nicewander and Badlock, come to represent good and evil—two sides that, tellingly, aren’t depicted in stark black and white. Schenck’s descriptions of war are remarkable—exploding mortar rounds are likened to “Hell’s entrance gate”—but his unrelenting, graphic approach can be excessive; racial and homophobic epithets abound, while women get the worst of it, more often than not being called “whores” or “bitches.” Some, such as Alignman’s loving wife, aren’t even given a name. His views on religion, however, while not to everyone’s tastes, are refreshingly candid, openly examining different creeds and showing a person’s redemption as an arduous battle, making the war setting all the more ingenious and not a drastic change sparked by simply adopting a new outlook.
Often searing and always provocative even if some of the uglier words or scenes can be distracting.