Gojan Nikolich’s new novel, The Gopher King (Black Rose Writing, 358 pp. $20.95, paper $5.99, Kindle), is not quite Alice going down the rabbit hole chasing the White Rabbit. But a few chapters into the book and you might think it’s Coraline going down a gopher hole with an M16 on full auto and a K-Bar in her teeth.
The story centers around Stan Przewalski, a weekly newspaper publisher in Bull River Falls, Colorado. Stan suffers from a severe case of PTSD after surviving a hellacious tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and Nikolich—a U.S. Army veteran—paints a verbal portrait of PTSD suitable for hanging in any VA hospital.
Stan, like many veterans who experienced combat, came home with the demons of war firmly in control of his life. He soon depends on therapy and pills to keep those demons in check. The healing process for Stan materializes in the form of a gopher—and not just any gopher. He is the Gopher King. Soon, Stan and the Gopher King, appropriately named Chaz, embark on an odyssey of mutual self-exploration. Chaz is an anthropomorphic literary device Nikolich uses to deftly to probe the depth of Stan’s problems and alleviate his PTSD.
On a sightseeing trip to Vietnam, Stan realizes that he cannot be redeemed. But he also discovers that facing his fears and the hidden places in his mind amounts to true bravery. And that the times he allowed himself to suffer at the hands of his demons actually were opportunities to face his fears.
Nikolich effectively plumbs the depths of PTSD through the magical world he creates that Stan enters. It’s a world populated with camouflaged gophers toting M16s and fighting to save their homeland. It’s full of misunderstandings, meaninglessness, pompous characters, reminiscences without purpose, and characters who make absolutely no sense and are based on vanity and cluelessness.
The residents of Chaz and Stan’s world mainly just want to get by and survive and maybe have a good time. Their world isn’t actually that much different from the real world, although the real world may be less exaggerated with its arbitrary rules and adult nonsense, crookedness, cowardice, and sordidness. Still, it contains those traits in equal measure—and in many ways the cruelty of the real world is more incredible.
Nikolich’s writing style drew me in immediately. He ticked all the good-fiction boxes for me: a good story, entertaining and creative descriptions, and mesmerizing dialogue. To the extent that a good novel entertains and enlightens, The Gopher King masterfully achieves both goals.
Nikolich’s portrayal of the characters is realistically accomplished. The humor and the story could provoke unwanted memories for the initiated, but they also can be of tremendous educational value for those with little knowledge of PTSD.
I highly recommend putting a velveteen gopher on the desk of every VA shrink and The Gopher King on your reading list.