Robert Espenscheid, Jr. most definitely owns a creative mind. Fortunately for readers, he shares his thoughts. His fourth novel, The Sentinel Papers (273 pp. $12, paper), bores in on American life in the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Espenscheid tells his story in a journal format. The cast of characters features three unmarried Vietnam War veterans who call themselves “The Deck”; two daughters of one of the veterans; members of the Sedgewick family; and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
The story revolves around the interactions of the veterans and the Sedgewicks, particularly the relationship between Oliver Dragon and Jodi Sedgewick. Yes, the book is a love story, and at every opportunity sex grabs center stage and does so in humorous ways. The drama is filled with complexity and contradictory behavior that carries beyond ordinary life. Nevertheless, the characters are truly believable.
This dialogue-heavy, fast-paced novel, which is set in Milwaukee, illuminates the difficulties of living with the consequences of war and highlights people’s dependence on lasting friendships and family life. Espenscheid tells stories that contain messages of right-or-wrong and good-or-bad, but he does not preach. At one point, he summarizes Oliver’s feelings by having him say, “Life had caught all of us by surprise.”
Espenscheid can turn a phrase. He describes one man, for example, as a “guy with a smile that lit up whenever he swung a kick stand down.” A man with “baggage crammed with heartache” is so psychologically lost that he says, “Not even Santa Clause knew my address.”
Espenscheid served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. He fictionalizes several of his war experiences in flashbacks in the novel. What the novel tells of the war is unique, presenting situations that I have encountered nowhere else.
After The Deck and the Sedgewick sisters pair off, the book concentrates on their efforts to build a unified family and to rejuvenate financially strapped Harley-Davidson. In doing so, Espenscheid provides outlandish lessons about group interactions, working class management, and love.
The Sentinel Papers ends with a bang that feel like peoples’ reactions to VJ-Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July rolled into one. The Deck and wives, relatives, and Harley-Davidson triumph.
Espenscheid lets it all hang out and the results are stupendous. I’m still grinning.