Salvatore Scibona’s new book, The Volunteer—this is his second novel—ranges over about a hundred years, from the mid-twentieth century to the mid-twenty-first, and over four generations: an Iowa farm couple; their son, Vollie; Vollie’s ward, Elroy; and Elroy’s son, Janis. Not in that order, however. The structure of the book is like that of shattered glass. The novel begins with the person last in line. The characters are joined not by chronology, by begats, but by their fate—abandonment—which Scibona announces in the opening pages, in a scene of great cruelty.
A small boy, maybe five years old, is standing in front of Gate C3 in the Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel Airport, weeping horribly and, between sobs, trying to tell the people around him what the problem is. But they cannot understand the language he is speaking. He is wearing a black quilted jacket with bits of white batting sticking out of its innards. The rips are repaired badly, with insulation tape. Someone loved him, but not too much.
Six years or so earlier, an American, Elroy Heflin, enlisted in the army. On assignment in Riga, the Latvian capital, he takes a shine to the waitress serving him in a street café. “How come you like my ear so much?” Evija, the waitress, says to him that night in bed. Before his stay in Riga has ended, she is pregnant. Redeployed to Afghanistan, he goes about twice a year to visit mother and son—Evija has named the boy Janis—until eventually she writes to him that she is moving to Spain, and can’t take Janis with her. Would Elroy please come—within a month, is that okay?—and pick him up? Sorry, she doesn’t know when she is coming back.
Elroy agrees, and he is in a café in Riga, armed with a coloring book, when the child arrives, pulling a little wheelie suitcase, in the company not of Evija but of her landlady, whom Evija has obviously paid to deliver him: “Elroy watched the woman leave. He felt a warm thing on the top of his leg. It was the boy’s left hand. With the other hand, the boy was paging through the menu as he looked at the pictures of the food.”
Elroy hustles Janis out of the café and onto a plane to Hamburg. Once in the Hamburg airport, he takes Janis to the men’s room and locks himself and the boy into a stall. There he says that he has to go take care of something. He has given the child his watch and showed him which way the hands will point when it is two o’clock. That’s when he will come back and collect Janis. Elroy lets himself out of the stall, taking Janis’s suitcase with him. Janis sits on the toilet, in all his clothes,…
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