Jack Tyne is looking for his father. The man isn’t lost—he died twenty years before in the Vietnam War—but his guidance, his impact and influence on Jack’s life is missing. Easy ways out of this situation abound, but Daniel Buckman doesn’t take them. He makes Jack—and by extension, the reader—work to make sense of the situation.
Just when Jack thinks he’s found what he’s looking for, a surrogate father to help steer him and fill the void, his world collapses and he realizes his quest was a fool’s errand all along. For readers, Buckman’s prose throws up a roadblock on the direct path to redemption and a happy ending. That’s not a bad thing. It keeps what could have been a rote tale fresh, breathing life into the story.
Such is the story of Water in Darkness, the assured debut novel from Chicago writer Buckman. The slim volume is a gritty tale rendered with tough, spare prose that fits the story like a flak jacket. On the surface it reads like your typical coming-of-age story. But the subject matter—the generation sent adrift because their fathers were scarred by the Vietnam War—gives this story a richness and depth that allow it to transcend the trite trappings of the genre.
Jack is just coming off a hitch in the Army as the book opens. He’s a quiet center of the storm in his unit, observing more than doing. As his crew flies out of Honduras in the late 1980s without engaging in combat, the various members react in different ways. Most, fired-up and ready for action, are disillusioned and take it out on a weak member of the unit. “They acted like Hollywood actors in every movie they had ever seen about the Vietnam War,” Buckman writes.
This is Jack’s story, but he shares its most compelling moments with Danny Morrison, a Vietnam vet-turned-cop-turned-crackhead. Both Jack and Danny have spent most of their lives trying to elude demons from the past, and neither has had much luck. There are clear parallels between the two. Both are disillusioned; neither found what he was looking for in the military, and the world was the same when they got out. “I came up here to disappear,” Jack tells Danny at one point. “I tried to do it in the Army, but I kept finding myself everywhere.” Buckman introduces Danny slowly, giving a real sense of his character long before letting him interact with Jack. There’s no trouble seeing where this is headed—at first, anyway. But Buckman keeps sending the two men in new directions, keeping readers on their toes. They take on a clear father-son relationship, albeit one that won’t be reflected on a Hallmark Father’s Day card anytime soon. Morrison’s world view is set in stone: trust no one, and do what it takes to get by. Jack, though he’s not quite so jaded, begins to buy into that way of thinking. He’s not as street-smart as Danny, but he’s more aware of how the world works. He pushes that instinct aside for a time, with disastrous results.
Jack’s rapid decline is a bit puzzling, however. He could have landed with family, messed up though it may be, but chooses instead to leap into a life of poverty by chucking it all for a room in a glorified shelter and an unrewarding job as a mover. And even that choice is suspect, because it puts Jack in a situation tense with racial conflict, one that sets him up perfectly for Morrison’s near Klan-like outlook and overtures. Soon he’s in an even less rewarding job and on a path toward destruction. It’s not all Morrison’s fault—he just lures Jack into the bad job and fills his head withnonsense—because Jack lets it happen. Both men spiral downward. That’s no surprise in Morrison’s case, as his was a downward spiral from the word “go,” but Jack is simply along for the ride. He’s too disillusioned by his military experience—both first-hand through his own service and anecdotally through the stories about his father and Morrison and others.
Peripheral characters are few, but Buckman gives them just enough detail to keep them from seeming like mere placeholders. This streamlined story, however, doesn’t need much ornamentation; this is the story of Jack and Danny, and all else is superfluous.
In the end things go wrong, as you know they must, but Buckman resolves this dystopic story with an ending that may seem a surprise but is nonetheless inevitable. Either way, you know you’re in for a bleak, bumpy ride. These are two people full of self-loathing headed for an unhappy end. In a telling exchange, Morrison says he “hates their luck.”
“Luck?” Jack says at one point. “I can’t say that anything since has been worth the struggle. No man has been good enough to put me out of my misery.”
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/water-in-darkness/