The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

David Rowell is an editor at The Washington Post Magazine and has taught literary journalism at American University. The blurry, out-of-focus photo of  seven identical red-roofed dwellings with an American flag at half-mast in front of one of them on the cover of his novel, The Train of Small Mercies (Putnam, 272 pp., $25.95), set my teeth on edge. It also set the tone of the book: Not a person is in sight.

On the second page an in-country Vietnam War detail bugged me. Rowell talks of a “kaleidoscope of mortar fire” that resulted in an object referred to as a missile hitting the earth and “sending shrapnel as big as bottles” into a GI’s leg. I hoped the book would get better after that. There was no evidence anywhere in the book that Rowell had any experience with war.

But the book is about the impact on America of the death of Bobby Kennedy, which kept me reading as I loved Bobby Kennedy and was hit hard by his murder, a day I will never forget. I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the Hudson’s Bay store, where I watched the news of Senator Kennedy’s death on televisions set up all over the store. I stood transfixed and sobbed.

The “train” of the novel’s title is carrying Bobby Kennedy’s body to Washington, D.C., to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. Other than the dead senator, there is no main character, but many characters, introduced, explored a bit, and then abandoned as though the train has passed them by. Most of the characters are briefly but realistically portrayed, and all of them pause their lives at some point due to the death of the senator. Few of the folks are people I would want to spend time with.

The one Vietnam veteran in the book, Jamie West, whom we meet first on page one and then see at various points in the book in at least a dozen chapters, is as close to a main character as we get.  We see Jaime the last time at the end of the book in a long newspaper article that refers to him as a “hometown hero” because he lost his leg just east of Than Khe in Vietnam trying to save the life of a fellow soldier wounded by a missile from “Vietcong artillery fire”  which filled the sky. Further, we are told that Private West is “home after a tour of Vietnam that lasted two years.”

Both the language and the details of this article puzzled me. Nowhere in the novel is it explained why Jamie West’s “tour” lasted two years, nor why he was still a private. Those are abnormal occurrences that require explanation. Jamie should have been at least an Spec 4 or even a sergeant with three stripes. He should have come home between the two tours for a leave.

David Rowell

In the acknowledgements there is no indication that the author allowed anyone with military expertise concerning the Vietnam War to critique the manuscript. How difficult would that have been ?

The note from the author at the end of the book indicates that Rowell took great care and did thorough research related to “Robert Kennedy’s funeral, the funeral train, and the burial.” I wish the same care had extended to the fictional life and military service of Private Jamie West.

It is no easier to fake such details and get them right than it would have been to fake the details related to Senator Kennedy. I think Private West deserved equal respect .

For Private West to be a character we care about and believe in, all of the details of his fictional life must ring true. Whoever said that truth lies in the details is right. Rowell didn’t do right by Private West, and he let this reader and other veterans down.

The author’s website is http://www.davidgrowell.com/dr/dr.html

—David Willson