What the F*** Was That All About? By Tom Barber

What the F*** Was That All About? (136 pp. A15 Publishing. $9.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the unfortunate title of a short novel by Tom Barber aimed at helping veterans deal with demons they sometimes battle for decades after their military service has ended. I really liked this book, but believe it would be better served with a different, equally creative title. This one is an attention-getter, but I fear it might cause some people to avoid the book.

Barber—who also is an artist specializing in fantasy and science fiction paintings—served as a U.S. Army medic during the Vietnam War.

The back cover tells us the story is going to be about a troubled veteran who is close to the edge of suicide until another vet shows him a better way. It also prepares us to deal with the concept of moral injury, in which a soul can be wounded when his or her basic understanding of right and wrong is blown away by war.

The main character, Eric, is a high-school art teacher in Boston who decides one day to join the Army because he is “searching for adventure” during the time of one of our most-recent wars. Looking back, he says he “turned out to be a half-decent warrior.” That phrase struck me because I think it’s how many of us regular guys feel after we’ve gone through Basic Training, advanced training, and a few months in a war zone–that we were “half-decent warriors.”

Eric receives a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Once his military time is over, it’s not long before he has picked up three drunk-and-disorderly charges. Despite that, he gets his old teaching job back. But then flashbacks of his combat experiences begin to kick in. Eric goes through ten more years of drinking during which he loses his job and is divorced by his wife.

He reads somewhere that “if you’ve never really thought about suicide, you haven’t lived a full life.” So Eric takes this to the next step and decides that if you think about taking yourself out your life would then be complete—as long as you don’t actually do it. Talk about a Catch-22. This thinking leads him to decide to drink a beer for breakfast and visit Mitchell’s Place, a one-room veterans center, for some possible counseling.

Eric eventually begins to bond with Mitchell and conversations ensue over matters such as why conflict is so much a part of human history, the tenets of Buddhism, and even the possible role of ancient astronauts. No matter what the subject matter, Barber’s dialogue always seems natural and unforced. But these discussions fail to resolve one of Eric’s worst recurring flashbacks, which involves a child.

Before long Eric struggles to quit drinking, begins keeping a journal, and starts delivering pizza. Then come relapses. Then art therapy and meditation. The struggle to be well continues, as does the desire to get there.

Vet Center poster by Tom Barber

There are several illustrations by the author throughout the book and contact info in the back for Vet Centers throughout the U.S. This would be a great book to be placed in each one of those centers.

Tom Barber’s website is tombarberart.com

–Bill McCloud