Book Review: Readings

Clint McCown


War Memorials

A Novel

by Clint McCown

Graywolf Press, 224 pp., $23.95

Nolan Vanní the deadpan narrator of Clint McCown's second novelí is very much a man in flux. His marriage to his high school sweetheart, Laney, is failing. Not only that, she's having an affair with -- and may be pregnant by -- Steve Pitts, an old high school rival of Nolan's. Nolan also just lost his job selling insurance, and the man who fired him was none other than his own father, Jimmy Vann, a World War II hero. As the novel opens, Nolan has started doing repo work with his buddy Dell to make ends meet. Repo work is not a line of business that brings him in contact with the finest citizens of the small Tennessee town in which he lives. But hey, things could be worse, for as Nolan observes while on a sticky repo assignment on the wrong side of the tracks, "In this part of town I could look straight into the misery that dogged these people's lives, and call my own life good by comparison."

Nolan's wry voice accounts for a large chunk of the pleasure readers will derive from War Memorials. Nolan's a man who's come to a crossroads, a man whose life hasn't really turned out the way he'd planned, though his plans had never been that grand to begin with (he'd settle for true love and an honest living). He's also a man living in the shadow of his hero father -- "A drill sergeant razzing a new recruit -- that was the tone my father had always taken with me," -- as well as his dead mother, who killed herself by swallowing a bunch of pills and then setting herself on fire ("It made for a quiet funeral"). That desperate immolation might make you shake your head and think, Oh God, we're in the wacky old Deep South again. Yet to McCown's credit, he keeps all the small-town eccentricity from feeling too terribly trite -- in fact, in his generous characterizations, he makes it all feel quite natural.

The story itself is nothing new: a struggling marriage, a strained relationship with a father, a struggle to be an individual in small-town USA, and a pre-midlife crisis. But in the end, as Nolan goes about his days, trying to repair what's broken in his life, McCown wins you over quietly and subtly, so that only when you close the book do you realize what a sharp and honest portrait of one man's life he has created.

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