I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
After I wept over the last page of Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary 2010 novel Room, I took a break from reading altogether. The break was more for self-preservation than anything else: Donoghue had managed, over the course of her horrific tale of a mother and child’s sadistic imprisonment and wrenching return to the world, to lock me into a tiny cell, a knot of intensely plotted turns and hypnotic language so tight that other novels could not unravel it. After living in Room, I saw all my environments differently. Locks clicked with more finality, and large spaces suddenly left me gasping for air. I put the book away, fleeing to nonfiction for several months afterwards. Fiction had taken me too deep down the rabbit hole.
So it’s with some relief that I can say that Donoghue’s Astray poses no similar threat. Instead of pulling the reader close into a whispered narrative of despair as she did in Room, Donoghue now throws the windows of the world open in fourteen stories of wanderlust, exploration, and possibilities promised by new and unknown lands. The stories are split into three sections “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and each stage of travel poses questions of why we travel, migrate, and drive forward into new territories, and what cost. Where once she constrained us to an eleven-by-eleven-foot cell, Donoghue’s stage is expansive and generous. She notes in her lovely afterword, that our wanderlust is really about the desire to find our fates: “Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form…Moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life.”
Each of Donoghue’s storytellers goes on great journeys, yet she tethers them before they — and we — ever know it. Each story, shifting in time and location across the last four centuries, concludes with a note from Donoghue, revealing the factual roots that inspired it. In “Man and Boy,” she shows us the poignant bond between the trainer Matthew Scott and his ward, the famous elephant known as “Jumbo,” just as the future circus magnate P.T. Barnum is making an offer to bring the beast into his American tour circuit in 1882. Donoghue slips, Zelig-like, into each story and embellishes the historical skeleton with perfectly attuned language: as the trainer Scott strokes Jumbo’s trunk, he murmurs, “We don’t mind the piddling tiddlers of this world, do we, boy? We just avert our gaze.” The “based upon a true story” hook makes the stories wildly informative and engaging. It’s not necessarily the case that narrative needs truth for maximum impact, but finding the kernel of reality in each tale makes the bigger tale even more resonant. In “Onward,” a young mother turns from a life of prostitution and wins her ticket to Canada by way of Charles Dickens. In “The Widow’s Cruse,” a young lawyer sees only what he wants to see in a young Jewish widow seeking his help. (Donoghue digs deep into the lawyer’s intentions, giving us the delicious description of his lechery. “The days that followed were full of pleasurable anticipations, and the nights brought scalding dreams. His sheets were dreadfully stained; he had to send them out for laundering.”) Donoghue knows how to employ the very best descriptors, all while perfectly mimicking the tone of her story’s time and place. “The Widow’s Cruse,” set in 1735 New York, sounds just as Edgar Allen Poe might lay it out, perfectly noble on the surface and subtly sinister below, just as “Snowblind” is pulled straight from the mouths of doomed prospectors as they trudge into the frozen Yukon during the 1896 Gold Rush. Jack London would be proud.
Some stories are less provocative than others — the moment of a mother’s journey across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (juxtaposed with her dying husband on shore), or the story of grave robbers going after Abraham Lincoln’s corpse, fall too much on our pre-established pathos and recognition to move the uninformed reader. But where Donoghue really gets us is in the stories that challenge their very contexts. I found unanticipated humor and intrigue in “The Long Way Home,” the story of Mollie Monroe, a cowgirl who also acts as a bounty hunter for wayward husbands in 1870s Arizona, and who agrees to an unlucky trade with one of her targets. The story’s resolution is unexpected in its modern bravado, and Donoghue’s revelation of its true-to-life source — an apocryphal story about a female bounty hunter later committed for insanity (aka cross-dressing, promiscuity, and alcoholism) only makes it more entertaining. But the most startling of these tales, and perhaps the most consequential, has to be “The Lost Seed,” the account of a settler in Cape Cod in 1639, who begins his time in the New World a good Christian, forgiving and compassionate for his neighboring colonists. “If we do not help each other, who will help us? We are all sojourners in a strange land…in this rough country we stand together or we fall.” But as time passes, “each household shuts its doors at night,” and so the man shuts his heart against his former friends. He is scorned by a girl he fancies, and later turns and accuses her and another woman of lewd behavior, of laying together with “not a hand-span between their bodies. It is time now to put our feet to the spades to dig up evil and all its roots.” It would seem that despite the initial clean slate of the new world, it would only take a single man’s wicked and petty mind to sully the entire enterprise. Once part of a community, he now wanders “across the fields for fear of meeting any human creature on the road. And it seemed to me the snow was like a face, for its crust is an image of perfection, but underneath is all darkness and slime.”
Perhaps travel is what produces the desire to settle down at all, in that finding oneself without territory can be profoundly destabilizing. The same impulse that would drive us to travel, to form new communities in new lands, is the same that would have us cling to our tiny plots and ward off interlopers. Accord and antipathy may grow from the same tree, if the soil allows it to be so. A new home, a new land, promises a chance at new definition, a chance to clear old disappointments away and start again. As Donoghue notes in her Afterword, perhaps written as she tours the globe telling stories, “I don’t know where I am. I peer out the little window at the flat landscape hurtling towards me several thousand feet below, and I think, where on earth is this? . . . Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways — they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth.” By giving us true stories of wanderers and vagabonds in search of broader vistas, Donoghue has given narrative weight to both the journey and the destination. And in offering up history newly made into stories, Donoghue makes the journey of literary reinvention into its own reward.
The American war novel, in popular mind, carries three defining traits. It needs to be big. Tome-like, something that’d make Ernest Hemingway and James Jones and all those dead, mustachioed alphas brood with envy. It should skew light on emotion (that’s what subtext is for) but be heavy on descriptions of the natural world. Trees, sand, mountains, et cetera. All beautiful in ways people cannot/will never be, because, sigh, the human heart confounds. And there’s got to be bullets and blood, trauma and ruin. War stories demand it. It’s what makes them war stories.
Then there’s John Hersey’s neglected classic A Bell for Adano. Its credentials as a war novel are certainly bona fide — it’s set during the Allied occupation of Sicily in the midst of World War II, opening with the line “Invasion had come to the town of Adano.” The credentials of the author are bona fide, too, as Hersey served as a celebrated war journalist on the European front as well as in the Pacific. (He’s perhaps best remembered for his reportage from post-atomic bomb Hiroshima for The New Yorker.)
Though a force in its time — it won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film starring Gene Tierney — A Bell for Adano hasn’t endured the same way other war novels of that era have, perhaps because it defies the traits mentioned above. It checks in at a breezy 200ish pages, and reads faster than that. Passages of the Sicilian town and countryside are few and far between, giving way to lengthy dialogue exchanges and (gasp!) even sequences of plot. As for the bullets and blood, the closest thing to combat described in the book is an errant fishing boat being blown apart by a sea mine.
But make no mistake, A Bell for Adano is a war story through and through. More specifically, it’s a story of military occupation. The book’s foreword introduces Maj. Victor Joppolo, U.S. Army, a good man the unidentified narrator implores upon the reader, and more importantly, a capable one. Joppolo has been assigned as the administrator to small, coastal Adano. He’s the head occupier, though you wouldn’t know it for much of the first half of the book — he stumbles, he blunders, he fails. But he also learns. He immerses himself into the governance of the town, from the duties of the police chief to those of the priests to those of the fishermen. He ignores an order from higher that bans carts, the lifeblood of the local economy, risking his own career. And while his right-hand Sgt. Borth begs him to “remember the alleys, sir, clean the alleyways,” Joppolo dreams grander: weeks prior to the Allied invasion, Benito Mussolini melted down the town’s 700-year-old bell for rifle barrels, the bell that once warned Adano the ancient king of Naples was invading. Joppolo aims to find a worthy replacement for that bell, first for his own ego and legacy, then for the town itself.
I suspect that all reads rather quaint, belonging to a time and place when American foreign intervention was both clean and just; martial invasion and occupation carry dark associations for us in 2016. And Joppolo, a true believer in democracy and an idealist, never questions the mission’s purpose or intent, something his contemporary equivalents in the armed forces (both the real and the fictional) would find puerile at best, and deeply stupid at worst. But the messy ambiguities of the human condition resonate throughout A Bell for Adano, most noticeably when Joppolo’s rigid principles confront the confusion of everyday life in post-fascist Sicily. Throw in a love story involving Tina the fisherman’s daughter with a hint of scandal (because, umm, Joppolo has a wife back home), and it doesn’t matter that Hersey’s war story defies the war novel traits. It just matters that it’s interesting and forceful and good.
For all its merits, A Bell for Adano is not a perfect book. Hersey sometimes falls into the stilted language that can happen when even an excellent journalist tries his hand at fiction, like he’s writing left-handed. Minor characters are sketches, speeches are didactic, and there’s a lack of emotional texture that’s pervasive. Sicilian stereotypes run rampant, from the dandy town crier to Tina’s “welcoming” sister. And for all his absurdity, the Gen. George S. Patton stand-in hasn’t aged well: caricature and legend have coalesced too fully by now. A moment of tenderness is what the general needed on these pages, not more foolish rage.
As an Iraq vet who first read A Bell for Adano after leaving the army, I couldn’t help but reflect on my training and reading assignments prior to our deployment upon finishing it. We raided a lot of mock houses, shot a lot of balloons and silhouettes, and read true stories of valor and bravery. I value all of that, still, because it contributed to my men coming home, to me coming home. But we didn’t study or talk much about moral courage. And that mattered a lot over there, and it’s what Hersey focuses his novel on, at the expense of more standard war tropes. “You see,” the narrator writes in the novel’s foreword,
the theories about administering occupied territories all turned out to be just theories, and in fact the thing which determined whether we Americans would be successful in that toughest of all jobs was nothing more or less than the quality of the men who did the administering…only men can guarantee, only the behavior of men under pressure, only our Joppolos.
There’s not much of meaning or lasting worth that can be gleaned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but perhaps evidence that America’s just not very good at occupation qualifies. We’re awful at it, actually. Maybe that’s due to the nature of our all-volunteer military force, separate and distinct from the nation that wrought it. Maybe it’s because our military isn’t, in fact, a foreign constabulary. Maybe it’s because Gen. George C. Marshall was right when he said, “A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War.” Regardless, it’s important to know such wasn’t always the case, even if whatever it is we’re doing now feels like a far cry from pushing back a fascist onslaught. Moral courage still matters. Only our Joppolos, indeed.