Sunday, July 18, 2010

In Conclusion: Stuck in memorial mode


I chose to read War Memorials by Clint McCown as part of the Spotlight Series on Graywolf Press. I picked this one based on two criteria: 1) the premise of small-town life sounded appealing, and 2) it was available at the New York Public Library [though, despite requesting it (twice) from the NYPL on June 23rd, it still had not been put into transit to my local branch by July 19th, so I just had to trek down to the West Village to pick it up (losing points, NYPL…losin’ points)]. And it was just a bonus that it ended up taking place in small-town Tennessee of all places. Win!

War Memorials is about Nolan Vann, the son of a WWII veteran who was inaccurately reported dead twice during the war, returning home to a successful career as a life insurance salesman. Nolan isn’t quite the local hero his father is. After his father fires him from the insurance company, he picks up work with a cousin as a repo man; he has no real ambition; and his marriage isn’t exactly one of great success. All in all, he’s just kinda going through the motions, while trying to have some big revelation and figure out what his life and what it all means.
Small towns intrigue me because of this: I grew up in a big city but one that is close enough to many small towns that the small-town way of life was still familiar. Fifteen minutes on the interstate in one direction leads me to the symphony hall, while fifteen minutes the other way leads to farmland where the pick-up truck is the most populous vehicle and rebel flags line tents selling fireworks (true story: just saw it while at home). It was a life I could not (and still cannot, really) picture living. I always drive through these areas and wonder how these people live. What do they do day to day? Where do they work? Where do they go to eat? What do they do for fun? And one great observation that McCown uses as a foundation for his whole story: why do small towns always seem to hang on so dearly to the past? Committees preserving an old theater or historic house, or fundraising to build a memorial. Always a war memorial. Reminding future generations that someone who frequented that very same drugstore on the corner where you fill your prescriptions played some part in an American war, allowing the historical record to imply that their livelihood, their memory is much more important than yours.
McCown’s writing is engrossing, because he says so much in simple ways. He has a great way of blending humor with the serious to create a story that isn’t too dark, but isn’t too comic either. He describes the unpredictability of any given day without ever exaggerating the action of it. He can take momentous events, like a snake bite or the accidental shooting (by arrow) of a local resturant owner (yes, so random and so amazingly creative), and humanize them, so we remember that real people are living through these things, reacting to them, dealing with them, and the drama of the event doesn’t take over.
I really enjoyed War Memorials. Nolan is a likable character because you just have to sympathize with a guy who feels stuck. It’s like he’s unhappy with the life he has, but he doesn’t know any other way; what do you do then? The answer I took away from the story is this—life has its imbalances but the uncertainty and the guesswork keep us going. So just go with it and try not to take it too seriously.


Chrisbookarama said…

I'm always wondering about people in big cities since I live in a small town. We do all the things you do just on a smaller scale. Today I was at the beach!

Glad you enjoyed your selection.

sagustocox said…

This sounds like an intriguing book. Thanks for spotlighting it. I run War Through the Generations with another blogger, and we are keeping a running list of WWII-related books. I hope you won't mind us linking to your review on our book reviews page.

Kari said…

Sure, go ahead. Sounds like a good list; I'll have to take a look!

Kari said…

You can certainly believe I am jealous you were at the beach! Though I love love love the beach and could happily spend ALL DAY sitting on one, the stress of getting to one here almost makes it not worth it.

Aarti said…

Great review, Kari! I love the cover of this book. And I think I share your fascination with small towns. I always wonder how well the people know everyone else, and if they are more friendly or less welcoming to someone new moving in. Not that people in the cities are super-welcoming to new people.

Valerie said…

Sounds like a good book. We lived in a small town (close to a bigger town; so it wasn't that isolated) for a while, and it definitely has its' pluses and minuses. I don't know if any one living situation (big city vs suburbs vs rural) is ideal!