Sabin Willett’s “Abide With Me” is a long, old-timey novel, the kind your mother used to check out from the grown-up side of the library: ponderous, large, portentous, dealing with serious subjects. A war is featured, and our boys behave heroically in it, but the F-word is never spoken by them, and the bloodshed occurs safely off stage. There is a pair of star-crossed lovers who are involved from their earliest teens, but they have sex so infrequently and obliquely that you have to look twice to notice someone is pregnant.
In a little town in modern-day Vermont, Roy, a boy who’s been in juvie, joins the service and heads to Afghanistan to act the hero. The author struggles with this. We really don’t see Roy behave heroically. His captain kills several of the enemy with a knife, but we don’t see that happening either. We know the captain reads the classics, and he prods Roy, who has dyslexia, to learn to read — which he does, 100 lines a night. An adult teaching himself to read in the middle of a war could be seen as brave, but hardly heroic. What does a hero actually do?
One thing Roy does is turn up unexpectedly to present himself to Emma, first at her prom and again at her engagement party, where she has paired herself with the expectable dweeb. But how heroic is that?
Instead, he ends up showing heroism in his purchases — first when he takes intricate care while buying a red truck, which he uses to start up his landscape business, and then later, when he buys The Heights, Emma’s old family home, a charming white elephant. He can’t have Emma, but he can have her house. . . .
The author has an even harder time with Emma because what kind of young woman makes an appropriate match for a hero? Emma is reduced to telling about it: “I was thinking about it — Bungalow Rock,” she remarks to her sister. “That was where it really started, you could say. The prom was more like . . . like, he’s back, it’s him again, my old friend that I was embarrassed about all through high school and don’t have to be anymore. But that summer I used to hold his hand on Bungalow Rock. Sneak kisses.” A girl doesn’t get to “do” much in this story, just “be.” How can Emma’s sister respond, except, “I remember. You’d go off on your bike, and Mom would pace up and down the porch, up and down, up and down. I’d watch her.”
It’s as though Sabin Willett has all the time in the world to tell this story. He creates this little town, a microcosm of America. It has the squalid trailer park at one end of the social spectrum, the three-story Heights at the other. It has its river and swimming hole, its used car lot. It has a lunch counter and a town gossip — a college professor, created, presumably, so that someone can function as the Greek Chorus for events, expounding on the cosmic aspects of what happens when a heroic warrior returns home to a girl who’s ordinary to the core.
But it’s infuriating! We are told again and again of Emma’s beauty and intelligence. But think of how F. Scott Fitzgeralddescribes Daisy: “Her voice is full of money.” That’s all we need to know about her. He doesn’t go blathering on.
What did this author actually want to say? He worked for years as a defense attorney at Guantanamo military base, and he writes in his acknowledgments that the idea for Roy first came to him while “thinking about some poor civilian in solitary, or some young soldier who’d boasted to me of his imminent deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Maybe “Abide With Me” is less about heroism and more about self-delusion.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
ABIDE WITH ME
By Sabin Willett
Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. Paperback, $16