Laura Harrington has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, as well as Alice Bliss, a novel that deals with the Iraq War. Her new book, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 224 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is set in 1970 when Billy Flynn returns home from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot who had been shot down and very badly burned.
The only survivor of that helicopter crash, Billy returns to his family in upstate New York where his adoring kid sister tries valiantly to help him regain the use of his right hand and arm. Billy had been a brilliant artist, drawing birds with a pencil he can’t even hold with his crippled right hand.
This is one of those tragedy-of-war books that has tears on every page and no easy answers or miracles for Billy Flynn or his sister. There is also a mystery: Billy’s pre-war girlfriend disappears and is never heard from again.
The VA hospital where Billy receives inadequate care is rat-infested and his care givers are skeptical that anything serious is wrong with him. They all but accuse him of faking his injury. Plus, the VA only pays for half of Billy’s rehab; his parents go bankrupt trying to pay for the other half.
What’s more, Billy and his best friend Harlow are treated by people outside the VA as though they are baby killers and monsters. They spend a lot of time drinking away their time and pain.
There is a big discussion about chemicals that the Army used in Vietnam. “There are plenty of vets who can’t smell or taste.” Billy says to his father. “Most everybody has hearing loss. More and more cancers are showing up. The VA says they are slacking off, looking to stay on the dole. Twelve million tons of Agent Orange, Dad. As if the Geneva Convention against chemical warfare did not exist. Think of what we have done, what we are leaving behind.”
This is as bleak a novel about the Vietnam War as I’ve read. Nothing turns out well for anyone. No good comes out of the war either. Harrington—who teaches play writing at MIT—and I see eye to eye about that.
Those who see the war as having done a lot of good should go elsewhere for their reading.
The author’s website is lauraharringtonbooks.com