Richard Baker served with the 4th Infantry Band in Vietnam, and has suffered, he tells us, “a lifelong battle with PTSD.” He’s the author of the novel, Incoming: The Piteous Recognition of Slaughter, which tells the story of a teen-aged Army band member sent to Vietnam and assigned to the bush to set up ambushes with no AIT or in-country training. Read that one first, then his Stone Island: Broken Soldiers in a Broken World (Ink and Lens, 198 pp., paper)
Stone Island’s main character, Rick, is a recently returned veteran of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who is “a Space Case, a bit abstract.” He is missing a leg, due to a war injury. It was not blown off by an IUD, though.
He joins up with his Uncle Alvin, a cantankerous Vietnam veteran, the other main character. Together they rampage on their motorcycles through Southern California. It is a mission of debauchery that includes sex, drugs, and alcohol.
The novel includes a woman, of course, Debbie, along with her teen-aged daughter, whose name a birth was Emily Murdock, but is now called Windbreeze—much to her chagrin. There’s also great bad guy, Bart, a brother veteran of our recent wars and his partner, Bad Billy.
In fact, Bart and Bad Billy are not really the bad guys they imagine themselves to be, just misunderstood victims of a war that seriously messed them up. There’s even a film director—of porn, natch. Many of the characters take part in the production of these little films, mostly in front of the camera. They all end up together on Stone Island, the author’s nickname for Morro Bay—a witch’s brew of damaged, dangerous characters.
I started writing down the things the characters said in this novel that hit home with me with the idea of sharing them in this review. But when I completed the book, I had too many to share.
That said, I will share a few of them. Such as:
Rick asks, “Can you believe all the dumb asses who still believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?”
His Uncle Alvin says, “Caring about soldiers is only rhetoric to keep them enlisting. The war doesn’t exist for anyone in this country and this one is even more ridiculous than my war.”
The author says of Uncle Alvin: “There were no receptions, no parades. He didn’t want any. No one spit on him either, like most veterans claimed. He always mistrusted them.”
Alvin muses: “To understand the phrase of Vietnam veterans, ‘It don’t mean nothing’ was to understand a great deal. He never heard the new veterans use the phrase. Maybe the government had so warped them that they believed war actually meant something. Or maybe they were just too beaten down by multiple deployments.”
We encounter a poster in Morro Bay in a gift shop of John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima. I used to own that poster. That movie is one of the very few I saw with my father, a Marine veteran of Iwo Jima. He was a living example of what Rick says in the book: “Going to war is not a problem, returning home is.”
Rick makes a speech to Bart near the end as Bart is trying to kill him. “There’s no pride in being a soldier,” he says. “No disgrace either. War is just a pile of bullshit shoveled out by cowardly fat-cats stuffed with greed and arrogance.” I wouldn’t even try to top that statement.
I highly recommend this philosophical thriller, which has a lot of bad behavior in it. All of it is enjoyable to read. Baker has written another fine novel, and I hope he is busy on another one.