Michael Quadland’s Offspring (Red Hen Press, 224 pp., $18.95, paper) is a brilliant literary novel, with a gorgeous cover and great design throughout. Hank Preston is the main character. He is a Vietnam veteran unlike most we find in recent novels.
It’s the mid-seventies, and Preston works in the Strand Bookstore, New York City’s famed used-book mecca, as a lowly shelver. He also has a part-time job as a sperm donor. One day when he shows up to donate sperm, he breaks the rule about riding in the elevator and meets the woman, Karen Allen Grave Tuckwell, who he is donating sperm to.
The third main character of this novel is Hank’s boss, Joey Maxima, a transgendered person. The characters interact; mayhem of a very combustible nature ensues.
I suspect that Quadland has no military experience, as the generic details about Hank’s tour of duty in Vietnam and his loss there of his best friend. Ted, to an explosion do not ring true to this reader. I admit that I spent no time in the jungles and little time in the rice paddies of Vietnam. But I was bothered enough by the wrong-footed details that I kept a list.
When Hank got “a weekend furlough” to Saigon, that really bothered me. I’d already been troubled by the author’s description of Hank’s airplane trip to Vietnam and the landing there, but these grunts slept together every night in a tent that they closed with a zipper and ate cold noodles and broth out of a can. They might have done that, but they would have called it some kind of c ration. These grunt details seemed truer to the Boy Scout experience than to the Army experience.
That said, I found Hank Preston to be a believable and likable character, albeit a tormented soul, and one this reader rooted for. I also rooted for Joey Maxima. But the third character, Karen Tuckwell, was too troubled for me to care much about or to think anything good was likely to happen for her.
The story is told in alternating character-oriented chapters, allowing each of the three main characters to speak out for him or herself. This method worked just fine, once I figured out what was going on.
Offspring held my attention the entire length of the novel, even though it is not a Vietnam War novel, and the war details stuck in my craw, which is a strong recommendation to a reader looking for a novel with a transgendered person and a positively characterized Vietnam vet, circa 1974.
For me, the most consistently interesting part of the novel was the era in which it was set, and how well the author brought 1974 New York City alive. I suppose I should admit here that I was not in the Big Apple in 1974. In fact, I have never been there, not even once. But after reading Offspring, I feel as though I’ve spent hours in the Strand Bookstore browsing the history section.
The author’s website is http://www.michaelquadland.com