23 April 2009

Review: How Can You Mend This Purple Heart

I finished reading How Can You Mend This Purple Heart, by T. L. Gould, a few days ago. I can’t tell you how nice it was to jump back into the story after reading the beginning so long ago. It was like old friends welcoming me back. So here’s a review.

In Purple Heart, you get to know a motley crew of Marines wounded in the Vietnam War as they recuperate on Ward 2B at a Navy hospital in Philadelphia. It’s told through the eyes of Jeremy Shoff, a Navy radioman who never made it to ‘Nam because of a terrible car accident. The preface states that Purple Heart is a story about “boys who returned from combat as men; men who left the better part of their youth, a bit of their souls and a lot of their flesh in Vietnam. It’s a story about longing to recapture the spirit of boyhood and rekindle the optimism and fearlessness of youth. And it’s about their struggle to be whole again—or at the very least, to feel whole.” That’s a perfect summary of this book.

But you didn’t come for a summary, did you? You came to see me pick it apart, right? Well, okay. But I’m warning you… I didn’t find much to pick at.

Mr. Gould’s style of writing may be different than some readers are used to. There’s nothing strange about the way he structures his sentences, or his grammar, or anything like that. He doesn’t use dashes in place of quote marks. He doesn’t do anything else way outside the norm. But simply the way he tells the story is a little bit different than the rigid first-person or third-person points of view we often come across. As I said, the story is told by Jeremy, in first-person narration. You could think of the book as one giant flashback, with a much-older Jeremy looking back and telling the story of these two years of his life. However, as you read, you will very often forget that Jeremy is there. Information that he may not have learned until very late in the actual timeline of things, he presents to the reader up front.

For example, each important character gets a sort of “nutshell” introduction. Not all at once, of course, but at the appropriate times each character is introduced to the reader with important information that you’ll think about every time the character speaks or acts: physical appearance, personality, some tidbit about their background, etc. I personally like that Mr. Gould chose this technique because it really fits the subject and theme of the book. Essentially, each introduction is not saying “This is who they are,” but is instead saying “This is who they were.” The book is about how the characters try to reclaim the lives they used to lead, the young men they used to be, but we all know they can never truly go back. They have to move forward, adapt, change. In order to fully appreciate who they become, we need a good idea of who they were, and Mr. Gould’s way of introducing each character gives us just that.

The way the first person narrator seems to disappear at times also mirrors how Jeremy would see himself in the story. He is dubbed a “non-combat motherfucker” by one of the other characters, and it’s a brand Jeremy feels to the core of his soul. He’s ashamed to be in the company of heroes when the only thing he did to get there is get drunk at a party before his deployment. Though he wants desperately to belong to this group, he can never be more than an “honorary Marine,” and his telling of the story shows just how much he valued and cared for the Marines on Ward 2B.

This leads me to the other characters - those Marines. Mr. Gould spins a tale in such a way that you’ll root for guys you might otherwise want to punch in the face. I even grew a soft spot for Earl Ray, a racist triple-amputee with one hell of a mean streak. (Can you guess who gave Jeremy his cherished nickname?) At one point, in the middle of the book, a Vietnam Vet-turned-war-protester comes to speak at the hospital with his long-haired hippie girlfriend on his arm. He denounces the war and says he’s ashamed of what he did as a Marine. Earl Ray just about flies out of his wheelchair to beat the crap out of the guy with his one good arm. In my own real life, had I been alive in that time period, I may well have been that long-haired hippie girlfriend, but caught up in the emotion of the book, nobody was cheering harder than me for Earl Ray to get in a couple good hits before the MP’s pulled him away.

Earl Ray aside, my favorite character by far was Ski. Alex Dante Yavoshky, known to his friends as Ski, has a quiet strength beneath his youthful innocence. The way it’s written, his Roosian accent is easy to hear, and adds a vivid dimension to his character. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that I envision the adorably toothless Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals ice hockey, if you’re wondering) every time Ski speaks. I cried when Ski received an unexpected visit and a very special Executive Order. (You’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean!)

So after all this praise, where’s the criticism I promised? I was engaged in the story right through to the last page. But once I got to the last page, I wanted more. I’m not talking a sequel or anything (though that would be interesting, to see how each guy ended up say, 10 or 15 or 20 years later). I just wanted a little bit more from the ending. A little more oomph, or more “the moral of the story is…” or something like that. But then again, why should an ending be completely definitive and sublimely happy, especially for a story like this? It ends on an ironic note, with Jeremy living up to his nickname a second time, yet unable to find in San Diego the same kind of camaraderie he found with the guys on 2B. I don’t dislike the ending, I just wish it could be different, in the same way you look back on a tragic event in your own life and say “If only it had been different.” But it’s not. So we learn, we live, and we move on, just like Jeremy, Ski, Earl Ray, and the rest of the Purple Heart crew.

As if supporting a fellow writer - one who’s trudging the publishing route on his own - weren’t enough reason to buy this book, the strength of the story is. I dare you not to fall in love with every character in the book, and I dare you not to come away from this story wanting to hug every soldier you meet. I don’t think you’ll be able to do it.

How Can You Mend This Purple Heart is available at http://www.purplescribe.com/

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