Anna Quindlen, a newspaper columnist and novelist, writes bestsellers. Her books are about the American family. Her target audience is mostly American women. She has ventured into new territory in her latest novel, Miller’s Valley (Random House, 272 pp., $28), with varied success.
Mimi Miller is the narrator of this family saga, which begins in the 1960s and follows the family and its toxic secrets to the present. We are told that Mimi’s mother struggled to maintain her family, but all it says about Tommy, one of the two sons, is that he “becomes unrecognizable.” I wondered what it meant, but I had my suspicions. Only as we get into the book do we learn that he joined the military and fought in the Vietnam War.
Tommy’s story becomes the backbone of this sad novel. Mimi’s ostensible obsession with the flooding of Miller Valley is the surface subject of the book.
“When my brother had finally come home for good, people said he was changed man,” Mimi says. “That wasn’t true. He looked a little like Tommy Miller, and sometimes he even talked a little like Tommy Miller. But the real Tommy Miller was gone. I don’t know where he left him, but that guy didn’t live in Miller’s Valley anymore. One day a car had dropped him opposite the barn just as I was getting home from school. I wrapped my arms around his neck, but it was like hugging a mannequin. He peeled me off as soon as was decent, or maybe sooner.”
She goes on: “We weren’t even sure where he’d been. He’d been gone more than three years, but Eddie was certain he hadn’t been in the service all that time. It was funny, Tom had changed so much but Eddie hadn’t changed much at all, still serious and a little anxious.”
Tommy “even scared me a little,” Mimi says. “He’d grown a big moustache and his hair was even longer now, and everything about him had coarsened, his skin, his body, his language, his eyes. The light in his eyes was gone, and so was the grin. That broke my mother’s heart I think.”
Later she says: “Tommy was one of those drunks who went through all the stages: sociable, silent, mean, nasty, violent. He tuned my father up, although he’d probably say it was the other way around.”
Mimi and the author are right on the money about how mother gets freaked out about the long hair and the big mustache, but to choose the word “coarsened” for his changes is hardhearted. It’s one example of too many false and suspicious notes that Quindlen hits in this short book. Three years are about right for him to be gone, for one thing. Also, the use of term “being in the service” is not right for a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Mimi’s curiosity about Tommy’s tour of duty continues throughout the novel. “Every once in a while,” she says, “Tommy would get drunk and say something like ‘the bugs, man, you can’t even believe the size of the bugs. They’ll eat you for breakfast.’ But you couldn’t ask him a direct question about Vietnam. On the news they showed some boys who burnt their draft cards. And Tom said, ‘I wasn’t even drafted, I signed up of my own free will.’ Then he laughed and laughed, and then he started to cry and he fell asleep on the couch before dinner and had disappeared by morning.
“Sometimes at the diner one of the old guys would say, ‘they make it look pretty bad over there, son.’ And Tom would say one of two things, either, ‘You have no idea’ or ‘You don’t want to know.’ Then someone would say that we had to beat the communists or they would take over everything, and Tommy would stand up and leave. He always got comped because Mr. Venti told the waitresses we had to honor his service to our country, even though I wasn’t sure Tom felt that way himself.”
I believe the comments of the old guys in the diner. But a Vietnam veteran getting comped for his food during that era was hard for me to swallow.
Later we’re told that he “took a lot of pills, some to help him get up in the morning, some to help with the pain in his leg. He took something that was supposed to make him puke if he drank, and he took it and drank anyway and got so sick he seemed he would turn his insides out. ‘I always start the day with good intentions,’ he said to me once.
“Sometimes he would even fulfill them. He would help my father deliver a heavy engine in the truck to someone, or he would pick up groceries for Ruth. He would sit with her and watch television, and he would make the two of them baloney sandwiches with mustard and potato chips. And then he would disappear and we wouldn’t see him for days, maybe longer…. Usually when he turned up again he looked exhausted, and sometimes he was bruised, or cut up.”
Mimi would sometimes watch him sleep on the couch. She didn’t look at his face, “but at the rise and fall of his chest under the grimy T-shirt. I wondered what his plan was now. Getting through the day, I figured… I guess Tommy’s whole life now was a war wound.”
Nothing much good ever happens for Tom. To be fair, nothing much good happens to his Aunt Ruth either. She is a Gothic character who never leaves her house and keeps a dead baby in a suitcase in her attic. Tom never becomes more than a stereotypical emotionally damaged Vietnam War veteran who never gets his life together. He deals drugs, gets into fights, and serves time in prison. Eventually, he disappears. We never find out where or why.
Few, if any A-list authors at top-line publishers are dealing with Vietnam veterans these days. So I was driven to read this book and find out how it would be done. I could be wrong, but I didn’t get the feeling that Quindlen actually has known any Vietnam veterans personally, let alone had one for a brother or husband or a father. Her characterization of Tommy seems well researched, but not torn from personal relationship or personal pain.
Tommy reminded me a lot of Emmett, the main Vietnam veteran character in another novel by a top American female author, Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country. That novel was also well-researched, but is infinitely more worthy than Quindlen’s effort. Perhaps it was the help Mason had from Vietnam veterans she know, including W. D. Ehrhart.
Tommy lacks the positive traits of Emmett. I would have liked to have seen some positive traits. But that is just me being a Vietnam veteran who looks for those things in fellow vets. And I usually find them, both in real and fictional veterans. That’s because people are usually a mixture.
I had high hopes for Miller’s Valley. I thought we might finally find a fully developed, fully rounded, realistic portrait of a Vietnam veteran. I didn’t find that in this novel—not by a long shot.