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, wishing he had remembered to keep the coloring book.
Two o’clock comes, and Elroy doesn’t appear. Eventually, Janis slides the lock and leaves the men’s room, returning to the gate where he and Elroy arrived from Riga. But Elroy isn’t coming. No sooner had he left the men’s room than Elroy took account, in his mind, of the hugeness of the arrangements he would have to make for the child—“day care, catechism classes, haircut”—and realized that he couldn’t manage them. He hurriedly boards a plane to London, where, upon arriving, he stuffs Janis’s wheelie into a dumpster. Then he catches a plane to the US—Boston, then Albuquerque. He picks up a rental car and drives it to the home of Vollie, the person who took the place of his mother when she ditched him. Entering the apartment, he sees, on the living room floor, the accommodation Vollie has made for Janis: “a quilt folded twice to make a mattress, a pillow, an acrylic blanket. Atop the pillow, a box of apple juice with its shrink-wrapped straw affixed.” Vollie is waiting for them. “I thought you were coming with the boy,” he says. “Yeah,” Elroy answers. “It didn’t work out, you know?”
Back in the Hamburg airport, Janis is still crying and also, by now, starving. But he refuses to eat anything: “Papa will come. By suppertime. Any minute now. So Janis should save room.” Some airport security officers persuade the child to let them take off his jacket, and he watches as they empty its pockets. They find a Kit Kat wrapper, a pack of gum, and $263, folded in half, that Elroy had stuffed into Janis’s pocket in the men’s room. That is, in his heart Elroy knew before he left the toilet stall that he would not be bringing the boy with him.
What Elroy did to Janis, most of the characters in the book do to one another, or get done to them. Elroy’s mother, Louisa, cut him off at the insistence of her second husband. As for the preceding husband, that was Vollie, who, when he was living with Louisa, drove off one night and never came back. Rarely do we understand why these people can’t stay with those who care for them and whom they seem to care for. But actually, the book asks, why should they? What do we owe one another, after all? Maybe not as much as we’re told? But if we don’t owe other people anything—if we aren’t somebody’s mother or son or whatever—do we have any identity, any “self”? As I read Scibona’s novel, I had to flip back a few times to remind myself of the difference between Vollie and Elroy, and I know that on some occasions I shed tears for Elroy that had accumulated for Vollie.
Scibona differentiates his characters, in part, by using a very tight point-of-view technique, whereby what is reported, even though it is in the third person, is only what the character being spotlighted at the moment sees or feels. But writers have been using this method at least since Henry James. Having placed most of his characters in the same emotional landscape, how does Scibona manage to give them different lives?
Sometimes he just insists, by the sheer force of the imagery he attaches to them. Why did Elroy like Evija’s ear so much? He’s not sure, he says. “It tasted funny…. He had a little bit of the USSR right here in his mouth. It tasted of sweat, sebum, and lemon-flower perfume.” This mix of sweetness with a slight repulsiveness: that’s Evija. Or consider Vollie’s parents, Annie and Potter Frade, a mature couple—she is forty-six, he fifty-three—when chapter 1 begins, with their marriage in 1949. A year later, however, Annie bore Vollie
in the Frade parlor, with pages of the Quad-County Advertiser spread all over the rug. Potter Frade, practiced in calving, delivered him and wiped him with dish towels and painted his navel with iodine. Annie looked him over and found nothing the matter with him and gave him her breast, and he nursed, wrestling the air. He was angry and strong…. They called him the Volunteer. Later, they called him Vollie.
The Frades’ quiet efficiency, their courage and know-how (“wiped him with dish towels and painted his navel with iodine”): you never, thereafter, stop loving them for it.
All these experiences are private, and not necessarily because the characters wanted to keep them secret. But a small detail can emerge as big as a house if we are allowed to discover it ourselves. Vollie enlists in the army when he is seventeen. One day in Vietnam, a rumor goes around that a shipment of candy bars went missing from a convoy and was hidden nearby. Soon it is found, in a tunnel: a whole pallet of Snickers with a dead dog tied to it. Though Vollie doesn’t tell us, we know instantly that the dog was left there to guard the candy bars, but was tied in such a way that he couldn’t get to them and eat them himself. And in the empty space where Scibona doesn’t inform us of this, we see the dog dying of starvation, a little bit every day, with a couple hundred candy bars nearby.
Later, Vollie, by now a prisoner of the Vietcong, reaches into his pocket and finds a silver-plated barrette, engraved with vines, that he bought for a Vietnamese prostitute whom he used to meet once a week. He liked her, he says, because once she was alone with him, she always took off all her clothes, “every stitch.” Also, she always remembered his name. He bought this barrette for her. It’s in his pocket because, that week, when he was supposed to meet her, she failed to come, and sent no message. What happened to her? We don’t know, and we never find out. But she had taken off all her clothes for him, and he had bought her a barrette engraved with vines. That’s story enough.
Sometimes, however, Scibona pointedly does not insist on his characters’ distinctiveness. Indeed, he undermines it, most notably by the theme of abandonment and the unity that it makes among them. That, I think, is the book’s greatest quality: the spectral manner in which characters keep melting into and out of one another. Of course, this makes their story seem universal; we are all abandoned, the book is saying. The constant violations of chronology also contribute to the characters’ merging. We do not get Elroy’s story, or Vollie’s or anyone else’s, in an ABCD sequence, so we can’t say, in chapter 6, that a character is doing something because of what that other person did to him in chapter 3. Lacking these causal links, we have a harder time assembling personalities for them. On page 21 we see Vollie, in his apartment, waiting for Elroy to arrive. Then, five pages later, Vollie is born, on sheets of the Quad-County Advertiser.
The book’s overarching story is that, in 1970, during Vollie’s third deployment in Vietnam, the United States began bombing Cambodia. Vollie is part of the incursion. Almost all the men in his unit are killed by the Vietcong, but three survive and are taken prisoner: a lieutenant, a “cherry” (new recruit) named Wakefield, and Vollie, who now has a bullet lodged between his kidney and his spine. The three are led into an underground tunnel where the Vietcong make grenades out of tomato-juice cans and road gravel. In this hole the American soldiers are tied up and left to themselves. Every day or so, someone brings each of them a packet of cold rice, wrapped in newspaper, and a cup of broth. Vollie is in the tunnel for 412 days. He listens to the lieutenant—some distance away from him, but audible—as the man prays, incessantly. In his own spot, Vollie has Wakefield on his hands. Day after day, he watches this boy—younger, even, than he—and smells him, dying. Eventually, Wakefield ceases to be able to eat, and, in a horrifying passage, Vollie gives himself permission to eat the boy’s food as well as his own.
There is worse. When he was a child, Vollie’s school was overrun by spinal meningitis, and his parents, to save him, repeatedly plunged his face in a frozen creek and held it there—a prairie remedy, apparently. This experience, of having loved hands nearly drown him: Is this what taught Vollie that he was alone? In the black tunnel in Vietnam, with Wakefield dying, Vollie’s “long work” began, Scibona writes:
The work toward which he had been groping since the moment in childhood he was plunged through the surface of the ice bath. The work of becoming no one. In the total dark, he closed his eyes. He studied the difference: the one dark with him, the other without.
Our armed forces weren’t just ordered into Cambodia. They were sent without the president’s informing Congress or the American public, a circumstance that, as many of Scibona’s readers will remember, set off the final convulsion of their countrymen’s opposition to the war in Southeast Asia. Bad enough that we had attacked Cambodia, but our having done this a year before President Nixon acknowledged the fact was a scandal of huge proportions, and therefore anyone who was an actual witness to the invasion had to be silenced.
Which brings us back to Vollie. In the Saigon hospital where he is sent after being rescued from the tunnel, he is approached by a man named Percy Lorch, who tells him that he deals in “intelligence products.” As Vollie soon discovers, Lorch is hoping to make him one such product. By now, it is 1973. Some people, even in the government, Lorch says, are claiming that the United States lost the war in Vietnam. That can’t be true. So, by fiat, it isn’t. “After the secret bombings and the incursion Congress passed a law,” Lorch tells Vollie. “The law said you [Vollie] could not be in Cambodia. Ergo you were not…. Actually, you were not only not in Cambodia. Actually—and I’m sorry to tell you this—you deserted.” That’s what his file says. But Vollie could make this problem go away by helping Lorch locate other inconvenient witnesses. It won’t be hard, Lorch says.
Lorch is the most insinuating character in the book. You can almost hear his words in your ear. Not since Ivan Karamazov’s midnight visitor has the Prince of Darkness come to a mortal in so mediocre a form. Lorch is modest, occasionally even tender: “We’re in this together, Sergeant. The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet.” He knows everything about Vollie: how much money he has in the bank, how many cavities he has in his teeth. This makes the story more sinister. Come over to our side, Lorch says to Vollie. We’ll fix everything.
At first, this is nice to hear, since there is so much hardship in The Volunteer. Apart from its unity of theme, this is the remarkable achievement of the book: its unity of atmosphere, of image, if only in the service of grief. Throughout its pages, the image of a human skull appears and reappears. Repeatedly, we also see a child’s head, like Vollie’s during the meningitis epidemic, being held under water. The image comes back in his nightmares. He also sees his parents, whom he loved, setting him on fire.
And then there is just the world, or the world of this book, a fairyland of cheesiness and lies. Lorch’s eyeglass frames are made of “iridescently marbled acetate.” So, pretty much, is everything else. Louisa, Vollie’s mate, has a job as a “simulcast teller associate in the off-track betting parlor of a casino owned by a Cherokee Nation conglomerate with their fingers in health care, environmental and construction, hospitality, real estate, security, and defense.” Not infrequently, the book sounds like Don DeLillo. Scibona has acknowledged his admiration for his predecessor, with the latter’s artillery of threat and junk and falseness. At one point, Vollie is living with Louisa and Elroy in a rented house with no electricity or gas, in New Mexico, near Los Alamos. The phone has been disconnected for years. It hangs on the wall like a forgotten spoon rack. Then, one day, it rings, like a summons from hell. Which it is. Lorch is calling. He has an assignment for Vollie. He needs him to find a man, Egon Hausmann, who is living in Queens, in hiding.
In the neighborhood to which Lorch directs Vollie, there is a certain Miss Colt, a Jehovah’s Witness, who used to take in homeless people. The health department eventually closed down Miss Colt’s flophouse, but it is still crazily squalid:
Discs of pressed foundation powders shriveled on the sills. In the sink, an old cake. Along the hall floors, levees of cellophane, pencil boxes, hosiery, record sleeves. Jars of sand evidently collected from deserts on four continents and labeled as such with embossing tape. Six rooms, each of them somehow the living room, with an appliance that didn’t belong, in the corner.
Squashed rats lie along the baseboard. The smell practically knocks you over.
The city inspectors seem, understandably, to have given Miss Colt’s establishment a hurried examination. In any case, they missed a secluded room at the back of the house, where Egon Hausmann, all but dead, lies naked on a soiled mattress in a tangle of afghans. Miss Colt has hired a girl from the local Ursuline convent school—Trisha, eleven years old—to bring Hausmann his oatmeal and empty his waste. But soon, Vollie appears at Miss Colt’s door with a colleague from Lorch’s secrecy operation. The man shoots Hausmann dead. Then he kills Trisha, because she tried to stop him. Finally, he turns to Vollie, a witness, as usual. He shoots him in the foot and walks out.
Who is Hausmann? I know Salvatore Scibona from his work at the New York Public Library, where he is the director of the Cullman Center, and so I actually telephoned him and asked. He said he didn’t know, and that I didn’t need to know, either. For that matter, we never find out much about who Percy Lorch is. He’s just a “contractor,” as he tells Vollie. We know that the people in the Defense Department often use independent contractors to do jobs that they don’t want our own soldiers to do. Makes sense, right? No, or not in this book. There are too many secrets, too many appointments unkept, too many strangers walking into people’s houses and shooting them. The whole novel gradually acquires a kind of overhang, compact of heat and car exhaust, enigma and cruelty. It is the atmosphere, the air, of the book.
Scibona gives us good people, too—for example, Trisha, Hausmann’s pre-adolescent caretaker. At one point, she tries to explain to a local hoodlum, Marlon, whom she has a crush on, why she thinks Miss Colt has been right to protect Hausmann and to go on preaching love at her Jehovah’s Witnesses’ meetings:
“Miss Colt’s family is dead,” she said. “But she’s out at her reading group now, and later they’re going to have cheese sandwiches at Fregel’s.”
“I don’t get your point.”
“My point being she made a decision to go on loving people. New people if necessary.”
“This is love?” Marlon asked, indicating the room with his chin.
“What’s worse, to treat people not as well as you could have, or to pretend they’re dead?”
But Scibona, it seems, is not quite satisfied with the churchy young Trisha, and, near the end of the book, he gives us instead—a virtuoso conclusion—the wedding night of Annie and Potter Frade, the progenitors of Vollie, who had known each other, in their farm town, from childhood. After the ceremony, Potter’s mother, who lives with him, courteously goes to spend the night with relatives in town. Potter brings Annie back to his home and, with some awkwardness, escorts her to his bedroom. She removes her dress and her corset. He is clearly not accustomed to such a situation:
He had gone hungry in his childhood, and now he could not distinguish the pang in his gut from the pang he had known as a boy, the need for oats in the morning after he had gone to bed without supper. His father would give him an apple at lunch and the boy would eat even the seeds.
Now his body was wracked from his sore feet to his searing inner organs to his brain swelling against the sides of its case. And he saw her holding herself under her armpits, covering, the long thumbs up around the shoulders.
Somehow she was roasting, although it was manifestly very cold, as the wind from outside rippled the curtains in the draft. She bent double and removed one stocking, then the other, sitting on the lower bunk, the relics of boyhood all around. He had wept once, talking with her decades ago outside a dance, explaining that Harold, his goose, had died.
Soon she is wearing only her panties. She watches him approach: “He was a predatory monster with its front on backward…. He approached, wicked, nude, and shivering.” He lies down on top of her. Soon she feels a terrible pain between her legs.
This is the only sex scene in The Volunteer, and though it doesn’t come till late in the book, it is worth waiting for. Each of these two frightened middle-aged virgins wants to do the right thing for the other, and they try. Indeed, they succeed. A year later, Vollie is born, into a world of yawning grief and some small kindness.