The Standard Grand, by Jay Baron Nicorvo*****

thestandardgrand“A loaded gun wants to go off.”

Critics have compared Nicorvo’s brilliant debut novel to the work of Heller, and indeed, it seems destined to become the go-to story of those that have served in the unwinnable morass created by the US government against the people of the Middle East: “a drawdown war forever flaring up”. It’s created a tremendous amount of buzz already. I was lucky enough to read it free and in advance for the purpose of a review, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, but today it’s available to the public. You should buy it and read it, maybe more than once.

The story starts with a list of the characters involved, but the way it’s presented provides a tantalizing taste of the author’s voice. The page heading tells us these are “The Concerns”, and the subheadings divide them into practical categories, such as The Smith Family, the Employees of IRJ, Inc., and The Veterans of The Standard Grande (misspelling is mentioned later in the story). Then we proceed to list The Beasts, and The Dead, and The Rest, and right then I know this is going to be good.

Antebellum Smith is our protagonist, and she’s AWOL, half out of her mind due to PTSD, anxiety, and grief. She’s sleeping in a tree in New York City’s Central Park when Wright finds her there and invites her to join his encampment at The Standard Grand. Here the walking wounded function as best they can in what was once an upscale resort. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the story is the way extreme luxury and miserable, wretched poverty slam up against one another. Although the veterans are grateful for The Standard Grand, the fact is that without central heat, with caved in ceilings, rot, and dangerous disrepair, the place resembles a Third World nation much more than it resembles the wealthiest nation on the planet.

On the other hand, it’s also perched, unbeknownst to most of its denizens, on top of a valuable vein of fossil fuel, and the IRJ, Incorporated is sending Evangelina Cavek, their landsman, out in a well-appointed private jet to try to close the deal with Wright. She is ordered off the property, and from there things go straight to hell.

Secondary and side characters are introduced at warp speed, and at first I highlight and number them in my reader, afraid I’ll lose track of who’s who. Although I do refer several times to that wonderful list, which is happily located right at the beginning where there’s no need for a bookmark, I am also amazed at how well each character is made known to me. Nicorvo is talented at rendering characters in tight, snapshot-like sketches that trace for us, with a few phrases and deeds, an immediate picture that is resonant and lasting. Well drawn settings and quirky characters remind me at first of author James Lee Burke; on the other hand, the frequently surreal events, sometimes fall-down-funny, sometimes dark and pulse-pounding, make me think of Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut. But nothing here is derivative. The descriptions of the main setting, The Standard Grand, are meted out with discipline, and it pays off.

As for Smith, she still has nightmares, still wakes up to “the voices of all the boys and girls of the wars—Afghan, Iraqi, American—like a choir lost in a dust storm.”

There’s so much more here, and you’re going to have to go get it for yourself. It’s gritty, profane, and requires a reasonably strong vocabulary level; I’m tempted to say it isn’t for the squeamish, yet I think the squeamish may need it most.

Strongly recommended for those that love excellent fiction.

Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center, by Adele Levine*****

RundontwalkI loved this memoir. I read it in 2014 through the Goodreads First Reads program when I first began writing reviews, a few months before I began my blog. This is a memoir intended for general audiences, disarmingly funny and engaging. I recommend it to everyone.
I’ve been through physical therapy for things like whiplash from car accidents–yes, some folks really do get whiplash–but nothing like the scale experienced by the veterans and soldiers that Levine treats. And so the first sign of expertise is in the title, where she wisely excluded any reference to amputations.
Ask yourself: is there a tasteful way to laugh about amputations and amputees, as well as the people who work with and visit them?

Amazingly, there is. She’s found it.

And at first I could not accept that this was Levine’s first book, because the amount of synthesis and development of characters is not in any way rookie writing, and I don’t care how brilliant the writer might be. The blurb says “experienced writer”. Everything clicked into place when I noted that she had been writing a weekly humor column for a local news source.

I didn’t set out to learn anything here–it’s not as if I am considering becoming a PT. And as stated, this should not be viewed as a niche book just for medical folk or military types, but for the general book-loving public. It would even make a good beach read.

But I learned some things, nevertheless. I didn’t know that anyone who loses both legs ever has a shot at walking on two prostheses, for example; and indeed, some don’t, but the possibility is strong. I didn’t know some prostheses have computers. And I groaned at the obstacles put in place by the fishbowl environment where she worked: deliberately limited computer access so that anyone, celebrities, congressional staff, or John Q. Public, will see the therapists ONLY working with patients, and then therapists have to stay after work in order to enter notes about progress registered, because people who come to see the circus don’t want to see more than two people using a computer at a time. The banning of coffee for the same reason; nobody wants to see your cup! And I loved reading about the guerilla response to said ban.

Levine uses either real people with changed names, or patients and colleagues that are an amalgamation of more than one person. Characters Cosmo and Major Dumont were favorites of mine. And I loved the Jim-quote and how it is used at a party full of insufferable assholes that think that they are really something because they went to Walter Reed and WATCHED the patients and therapists for awhile. The punch line is awesome, and I won’t ruin it by telling it here.
And I really loved the Miracle reference.

I was on my third day with this book when someone in my family died. It was a total fluke, someone younger than me whose time should not have been up yet, and it hit all of us in the solar plexus. The writer’s chapter on the bone marrow transplant proved really cathartic. It wasn’t written for that purpose; I just had the right book at the right time, and so I sat with the book in my hand and cried awhile. Thanks; I needed that.

Sometimes I recommend getting a book free or cheap, but this one is worth the jacket price. Funny, absorbing, and informative.

I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, by Jesse Goolsby ****

idwalkwithmyfriendsifThis fictional memoir chronicles the lives of three men who join the US armed services and wind up together in Afghanistan. It follows them after they leave, coming home but not home, alienated, injured in various ways both tangible and intangible. It’s an important book to read, given the current state of affairs and the ways in which the government denies us information regarding the US war in Asia. Thank you to Edelweiss Above the Treeline and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the DRC. It will be available to the public at the beginning of June.

Dax, Wintric, and Torres come from different parts of the country, but all are members of the American proletariat. Jobs and a future are not abundant in down-at-the-heels America, economically past its prime. Each of them comes to the service not out of a longing for glory or out of feverish patriotism, but pragmatically; where else can they find a job? Who else will train them, send them to school free?

Most of their time in uniform is mind-numbingly dull. But it only takes a few minutes, perhaps even a few seconds to rock someone’s life and forever change it.

All of them return, and no one is the same. Goolsby deserves credit for developing well crafted, if not necessarily likable, characters. The ambiguity as to some of their fates made me a little crazy at times, but that also demonstrates how much I was invested in the story. Interesting to me was the fact that I bonded a lot more with the women in their lives than with any of them. Yes, I am female, but I can’t count the number of male protagonists in other novels that I’ve bonded with. I think it comes down to culture; I have never been able to understand gun nuts (which is how at least one of them comes back), or with those who turn to violence as a necessary aspect of their domestic lives. And yet the story is written in such a way that it is entirely believable.

Although I generally prefer urban settings in my fiction, I appreciated the way the writer cut across stereotypes of California by setting Wintric in the Northeast part of the state, a rural area near Chico. I think a lot of people who have not been to California, or who have flown into a major city and then back out, fail to appreciate how much of it is rural or wilderness. The character of Kristen as a girl who never wants to go further from home than the giant redwoods—doesn’t even need to get as far away as the Pacific Ocean!—was a brilliant stroke.

I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is not a cheerful book or an uplifting one; if you are inclined toward depression and decide to read this timely novel, find a second book that is humorous or heartwarming to alternate with this one. But for those of us here at home who see no film footage of this war, no news articles that show what takes place on the ground or even the coffins that are sent home thanks to the governmental news blackout, it is an important addition. Thoughtfully written, and recommended.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, by Billie Letts ****

The Honk and HollerThis is a bittersweet story about quirky yet ordinary characters in a little out-of-the-way place in Oklahoma. The point of view swings from one perspective to another. MollyO is protective of the cafe’s owner, a complicated man who was rendered paraplegic in Vietnam. She longs for her daughter, Brenda, a runaway, to come home and stay. Bui is living covertly in a nearby church. He comes to work at the cafe. I watched this character unfold particularly carefully. I live in an area where there are a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, and I watched for stereotyping or assumptions on the part of the writer. In the end, though, Bui rang true to me, an endearingly familiar sounding man with a really good heart. And then the list continues.

I don’t like small towns; I prefer large northern metropolitan cities. I do like to read novels featuring working class protagonists, though, and I think it was this feature, believably rendered without undue sentimentality, that worked for me. I have older family members who lived in Oklahoma before I was born, and this novel evoked a strong pull on them, a sense of place nearly tangible to them.

If four and a half stars were possible, I’d give them here. Read it if you enjoy good fiction with strongly drawn characters.