When Anne and Dale Sumner were told that their only son, Michael, had been killed in Vietnam, they sold the home in which they'd raised him and, as soon as Dale retired from the Chicago police department, they left their lifelong friends for a new life in an unfamiliar town in Florida. "We didn't want to be in that place in Chicago," Dale explains later. "Everything reminded us."
A heartbreaking story and, heartbreakingly, a familiar one. But three weeks after the Sumners move into their new house, a miracle happens: The Army informs them that Michael is not dead; he had been captured by the enemy, and has now escaped. You might expect the Sumners to live happily ever after so remarkable a resurrection; that's the rest of what must be the fantasy of every family that loses a son to war. But in Robert Bausch's worthy first novel, the Sumners face a situation that is almost worse than living with Michael's death. Their son is returned to them, and they hardly recognize him.
At his best, Michael is withdrawn. He sleeps, eats and goes for long walks. "He lives in the house like a pet," Anne thinks. At his worst, as in the opening scene in the book, when he is startled by some Fourth of July fireworks, he suffers spasms of fear and flashbacks to Vietnam, and his behavior becomes erratic.
This is not another "Crazed Vet Kills Four" novel. In fact, Bausch's plot encourages the reader to examine that stereotype so rightfully resented by the vast uncrazed majority of Vietnam veterans. Bausch plays off our fears that Michael is a "bomb" who'll "go off or something," to use his father's words, and we see what a burden that fear must have placed on other returning soldiers.
The focus of the narrative shifts among the three Sumners, and occasionally Michael speaks to us through the device of tape recordings he has made for his psychiatrist. Deftly Bausch takes us back and forth in time, stitching the parents' warm memories of their small boy to their bewilderment at the aloofness of the grown man; laying Michael's uncontrollable fear of remembering beside the unspeakable horrors he witnessed and degradations he survived; presenting both the mother's hopeless nightmares when she believes her son is dead, and the son in his delirium of captivity confusing his captors with his father.
Anne is the most compelling character in the book, and Michael is fully convincing. Both Anne and Dale are frustrated by Michael's inability to say what happened to him while he was a prisoner. He is sick, and they want to know why. As the weeks go by and Michael seems not to be getting better, Dale becomes increasingly hostile toward his son. "There's not a mark on him," Dale tells anyone who will listen. But Anne is at war with herself. No matter how difficult Michael becomes, she cannot turn her back on him, knowing as a mother what we come to know and accept, that there are good reasons for the way Michael now behaves.
We also come to see that there are parallels between Anne's situation and Michael's. Both are badly displaced. Anne has left everything that matters to her back in Chicago. She has no interest in this town in Florida (neither do we; Bausch doesn't work very hard to bring it to life for us), no interest in her plain new house, no interest in retirement, nothing to do. She wants to go home to Chicago. Michael, like any soldier far away, has dreamed of home, and the fact that the home of which he dreamed no longer exists contributes to his problem. This is the meaning of the book's forgettable title.
Dale is the impediment to Anne and Michael's happiness. He does not want to go home; he has worked for this retirement and is content, we are to believe, to have nothing better to do than fish all morning and sit in bars in the afternoon. Dale isn't a satisfying character. He shows colossal insensitivity to his son's problems and his wife's needs, a piggishness all the more unfortunate because he is a retired cop. Here Bausch does yield to the stereotype. Dale seems to have been conceived more to serve the novel's plot, and the need that any novel has for friction, than to serve our better understanding of human nature.
One other aspect of the novel also struck me as being too mechanical. That is Bausch's use of dialogue. Rarely do the characters reveal anything significant about themselves when they open their mouths, and often when they speak we hear no human voice at all. It's mystifying that Bausch's dialogue should be so flat when other parts of the book, the flashbacks to Vietnam, for instance, are throbbingly dramatic.
Serious novels tend to make spiritual claims upon us, rather than temporal. But the war novel is a special case, encompassing both realms. Every serious war novel makes an implicit political statement: "If you knew before what I am telling you now, you never would have let it happen." Robert Bausch's novel enlarges our understanding of what we let happen and counsels us never to let Michael's story repeat itself.