A Soldier's Joyby Madison Smartt Bell
Two Southern soldiers, recently back from Vietnam, struggle to resume their lives amid dangerous and deep-rooted prejudice
Thomas Laidlaw returns home from Vietnam with nothing much in mind but to tend his acreage, live apart, and get lost in the roots music he grew up with. Laidlaw’s childhood friend Rodney Redmon is doubly burdened:/b>
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Two Southern soldiers, recently back from Vietnam, struggle to resume their lives amid dangerous and deep-rooted prejudice
Thomas Laidlaw returns home from Vietnam with nothing much in mind but to tend his acreage, live apart, and get lost in the roots music he grew up with. Laidlaw’s childhood friend Rodney Redmon is doubly burdened: Not only is he scarred from the war, he is also a black man living in a prejudiced area of Tennessee. Redmon’s homecoming from the war included time in jail—the result of his being framed for real estate fraud by racist forces within the local establishment. Once released, he and Laidlaw rekindle their friendship and both veterans try to put the war behind them. But when a group of local Klansman emerges, the violence that haunts them may prove impossible to escape.
Masterful in its execution and stunning in its emotional resonance, Soldier’s Joy is a riveting portrait of two damaged souls struggling to achieve solace despite the demons of their past.
“One of our most courageous and large-souled talents.” —Chicago Tribune
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By Madison Smartt Bell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Madison Smartt Bell
All rights reserved.
The summer laidlaw came back he spent all his time learning to drop-thumb on the banjo. He'd been a better than average Scruggs-style picker before he left, but he didn't put on picks again, not for the first half of that first summer. Discipline, was what Laidlaw told himself. If you want to have any music then you'll just have to play it like this, that's how you learn. He spent most of his days out on the porch of the clapboard house he lived in. There was a clear view across the yard to the dirt road that came out of the trees and down the hill, and every so often he would see a car creeping carefully down the steep incline, but it was always going somewhere else. Behind the house cleared ground rose and leveled out at a small dug pond with a barn beginning to fall down beside it, and then climbed more steeply to the tree line. The hill pasture was raked with fresh red gullies and the garden on the low side of the house had gone to weeds for two years and most of the rooms of the house itself were full of the plunder of white-trash tenants and God only knew what went on in the woods, but Laidlaw didn't care.
He had back pay and some disability because of his foot and he didn't need to go to work, not right away. Most days he'd play the banjo from morning till night, stopping for a sandwich now and then, or coffee. In the evening he might drink a little whiskey but never very much. The banjo was strikingly heavy because of all the wood in the resonator, and if he was drunk the weight and balance of it could confuse him to the point that he was unsure just what it was he had in his hands.
In the morning he always woke abruptly, found himself bolt upright and unwound from his sheet before he suspected he was coming out of sleep. Usually it was early enough when he awoke that from the pallet he'd made on the floor of the main room of the house he could look up through a sash window and see the morning mist smoking up from the hill pasture into a blank section of sky. It took him a moment or two, most days, to understand just where he was. Then he got up and went back into the kitchen and started coffee in an old stove-top percolator he set on an electric eye. By the time the pot began to chuckle he was already at the banjo.
It was an old Vega, though not one of the very oldest. Laidlaw placed it around the late forties by the cam-type tuners it had, which had become outmoded soon after they'd been invented. There were no frills to the instrument, no fancy fretwork or inlays. Even the Vega logo was simply sketched above the pegs with white paint. Whoever had owned the banjo before him had just really liked to play. The metal fittings were chrome-plated, and a patch on the guard where the right forearm rested was worn through to the brass. The banjo had a plastic head, more reliable than sheepskin for changeable weather, and just by the bridge where a player's ring and little fingers would be posted, the whiting had been rubbed down to transparency, a little peephole Laidlaw could look into if he wanted, to see the steel rod that held it all together and the inside of the resonator.
The resonator was this banjo's secret; deep and heavy, the wood of it a whole inch thick, it produced a fuller, richer tone and more of a sustain than any other he had ever had his hands on. The back of the resonator and the neck had been thickly finished to a false orangy color. On the back of the neck the layers of varnish had been polished back to the pallor of the natural wood by the ball of somebody's thumb traveling up and down it, covering the same route over and over like a man walking back and forth to the well. It must have taken years of playing, hours every day, to accomplish that, which was something Laidlaw liked to remember whenever he picked it up. It was an instrument made to play. No flash, no tinsel, it was all sound.
In the early morning before the coffee had perked his hands moved on the banjo with a soupy clumsiness, though his mind was instantly clear at waking. Knowing it would pass, he didn't let it bother him. With the banjo on the strap, he paced the kitchen from the stove to the enamel sink, peering out of the windows on all three sides of the room. The eaves of the house slanted down over the kitchen and he had to stoop a little to see out. All the while his hands were groping their way through the drop-thumb routine, doing the best they could.
When the coffee had made, he poured himself a big mug of it and went with that and the banjo out to the porch, where he sat down in one of the four ladder-backed chairs that were there. After drinking from the mug he lit his first cigarette of the morning. He was smoking a lot now because of the novelty of being able to smoke whenever he felt like it, but he rarely finished a whole one. Every cigarette he lit would end up stuck under the low-D string next to the peg, where it would burn itself out, raising a thin twirl of bluish smoke and salting the weather-grayed floorboards with its ash. The porch was all unpainted. It ran along two sides of the house, and Laidlaw usually sat near the corner. To the west at the edge of the yard water maples grew on either side of a creek, screening the ragged woven-wire fence around the garden, and beyond the garden there was an unknown pasture. On the south side the yard, scraggly with dandelions and patches of tall grass, dipped and then rose to the fence and the road gate. The locust poles of the road fence were slewed this way and that and the wire dragged to the ground in places. It was all so tumbled over with honeysuckle that in certain areas it seemed that the vines were holding up the wire. The gate, fourteen feet wide and nailed together from one-by-fours, was in fair shape except for a broken board at the top. A rutted track just wide enough to drive on ran back from the gate on the high side of the house and behind it to the barns.
While his hands went up and down the banjo, Laidlaw's eyes wandered from spot to spot, fixing on one thing and then another. There were always birds busy in the yard, and he had fallen into a habit of tossing out breadcrumbs for them. He enjoyed their light movements, something to look at. There was no use looking at his fingers. The left hand already knew what it was doing and the right hand would have to teach itself. In the mornings before the coffee got through to him, Laidlaw could fancy that it was someone else trying to play, awkwardly framing the one-to-one clawhammer beat, the sound of it coming back to him from some distance, while his intelligence drifted elsewhere, above and beyond the body. His thought and senses wound into the landscape while his hands went their own way, chopping steadily at the banjo, lifting the coffee cup, lighting cigarettes. In time, however, he'd come back to himself, the parts of him pulling together. Just short of noon most days there came a kind of melding, so that he knew that it was he who made these exact movements, produced these sounds. Fully awakened, he looked all around himself and saw that he was here, and was amazed all over again at his presence.
In Oakland Laidlaw had had no heart for any kind of celebration. Once off the plane he shook off the company of all the other men on it; though the flight had passed pleasantly enough he didn't care if he never saw any of them again. He hired a motel room to sleep off the trip but woke up after only two hours, tight with nerves though he could remember no dreams. It was still the same morning of his arrival and Laidlaw checked out of the motel and walked down the strip to a cluster of used-car dealers and shopped around until he had found a big blocky Chevrolet pickup, with a lot of cosmetic damage to the body and the bed rusted nearly all the way out, but a strong simple-minded V-8 engine, still in good shape. He paid five hundred for the truck. The dealer was happy to give him the balance of the government check in cash.
Wherever it was not scabbed with rust, the truck was black. Laidlaw drove the California coastline. There were girls on the beaches, whiskey in the bars; you could have whatever you wanted if only you knew what it was. Laidlaw couldn't make up his mind to stop. Maybe, he thought, it just wasn't his kind of country. He tore the map out of the front of a phone book in a gas station booth just south of San Francisco, and set out east with that as his only guide.
The map was on two pages he'd had to rip out separately. Behind the mountains, California was parched. Laidlaw aimed the truck across Nevada. Accident and the phone book map led him to a secondary road winding around Lake Tahoe. He didn't stop to gamble. For the first two nights he tried motels but found he could not sleep enough to justify the price of them. So he took to pulling into roadside rest stops, or sometimes just on the shoulder, whenever he needed an hour or two of a light sit-up sleep. In Utah he was rousted once by a state trooper in a chill predawn, but when the officer had checked his license and his discharge papers he just shook his head and let him be.
Utah was as sere as a bleached bone, baking in its own dry heat. West of Salt Lake City, the landscape became so constant that at times Laidlaw suffered the delusion that the truck wasn't moving at all. That dead alkali white rolled out to impossibly violet mountains, too far away even for parallax; movement suggested itself only by the changing shades of the passing of each day.
The Kansas-Missouri border came at the fold of the map, and when he had crossed it Laidlaw let the first torn page feather down to settle on the floor of the cab on the passenger side. It was around then that he stopped eating, not on purpose at first but from forgetfulness. He drank coffee, Cokes, a pint of milk, but took no solid food across Missouri and Kentucky. The inadvertent fasting affected him little, except that there seemed to be times when he felt unsafe enough on the road to have to pull over, consuming the wasted time with blank staring out the window, since he could still sleep only in one- and two-hour snatches.
Halfway across Virginia he stopped at a crossroads store, one of the old style with dust-covered cans ranked on the shelves, its only brisk trade in saltines and slices of rat cheese slicked onto sheets of wax paper at the counter. Here Laidlaw bought an individual can of Bumble Bee tuna, which he carried out to the hot black vinyl seat of the truck. The can opened with a ring tab at the top, a device which was new to him. Inside were perhaps four ounces of tuna in thick flakes of varying shades of pink. Laidlaw speared pieces of the fish into his mouth with a white plastic fork the storekeeper had supplied. Half the can was enough to sate him altogether. He wedged the pop-top over the remainder to save on the seat of the truck, thinking his appetite would return when it got dark and cooler. But by the time he neared the coast the can had drawn flies and he threw it out when he stopped for gas.
The road was quite familiar now, every bend and curve of it known to him from summer after summer in the back seat of the car, chin propped on the front-seat cushion, peering around his father's boxy head to see the highway signs. Then later, when he was old enough, they'd shared the driving. However, when he reached Virginia Beach it became a little strange, altered, more built up than he'd remembered. There were clumps of condo towers that had mushroomed since he'd been there, and he couldn't seem to find the house they used to stay in. After his second pass along the strip he concluded that it must have been torn down. He parked the truck on the lot of a 7-Eleven and went across the road and between two of the high-rises to reach the beach. Going down a set of concrete steps to the sand, he encountered a squatty woman wearing a frilled bathing cap, and with an unlikely smear of lipstick over her mouth, who immediately began to shout at him that he must stop, that the beach was private here, that he must not walk there. Her accent was foreign and her English unorthodox, and she even followed Laidlaw toward the water, plucking at his sleeve. But it was evening, suppertime, and there was no one else around to back her claim, and finally Laidlaw managed to just walk away.
It was low tide and he walked on the packed sand by the water line, which was easier for him to negotiate, with the limp. By dark he had got away from the high-rises and was passing in front of a row of bungalows, which then fell away entirely behind a rise of sand. Laidlaw sat down and propped his back against a dune. Fronds of sea oats waved and tossed above his head. Just higher than the horizon line, an evening star shone brightly enough to cast a reddish track along the surface of the water, but of course it could not be a star, he realized; it had to be planet: Mars. The light rode toward him across waves that said hush, hush, hush, over and over, collapsing over one another on the sand. Laidlaw was quietening within himself and a restlessness that had been in him began to drain away into the expanse of the cloudy water. After a time he rolled over on his side, shoulder and hip digging pockets for themselves in the loose sand, and fell into a black dreamless sleep that carried him all the way until morning.
He woke up hungry, somewhat to his own surprise. When he had found his way back to where he'd parked the truck he went into the 7-Eleven and bought a cup of coffee and a blobby cream-filled donut which he ate all of, sitting in the truck. Though he'd awakened early, the cab was already smoking hot. It cooled a little as he drove out of town, taking the road southwest from nothing more than habit. It was the regular route now, and he no longer needed the map. He got to Abingdon before he'd properly realized that he was going there.
Coincidence, maybe: he was low on gas, and the day was fading into evening. Once he'd filled up Laidlaw didn't go straight back to the interstate, but turned the truck along the main street of the town. It wasn't far, just a bump across the tracks, then two blocks, and he pulled up across the street from the big brick hotel. It had not changed much, he didn't think, though maybe it looked newer, the bricks a rosier shade, as if they had been sandblasted, the columns a fresher white. There were many cars and he could see figures in evening dress passing back and forth across the tall windows inside the portico, engaged in some formal function there.
The main door swung sharply open and out came a woman all in white, a long lacy dress with a train that blanketed the steps behind her as she tripped down them, on the arm of one of the tuxedoed men. It was just a sight, something strange, the sort of thing the mind might feed itself to pass some too quiet night, and Laidlaw did not even register it as a wedding until the car pulled up at the foot of the steps, a gray Mercedes, soaped over with the usual lame jests. Bride and groom scurried into the car and it sped up, swinging around the semicircular drive. The scraping of the cans on the pavement convinced Laidlaw that this event was indeed transpiring. The car turned out of the drive, passing close to him. Briefly face to face with the bride, he saw that she was not beautiful, though enclosed in the icon of dress and setting she had seemed so. The Mercedes went toward the interstate, combing the road with its streamers of cans. Some of the wedding guests who had come out to observe the departure went back inside, while others straggled toward their cars.
Laidlaw turned the truck around and drove it back to the gas station, where he took his duffel bag out of the back and carried it into the men's. The soap on the sink was oil-stained, but it seemed to work well enough. He washed his face and neck and shaved carefully and patted his hair in place with warm tap water. In the duffel bag he had a dress shirt and a jacket and tie, all crumpled but reasonably clean. He'd lost enough weight that his clothes hung on him slackly. In the spotty mirror his look was off, too raw, but he'd done what he could.
A number of ushers from the wedding party were milling through the lobby of the hotel; they all wore red cummerbunds and appeared to be several parts drunk. Laidlaw cut through them to the big oak desk at the rear. He did not feel that they noticed him particularly, though a couple seemed to reel a bit in keeping out of his way. The clerk was young and fuddled easily. While she shuffled cards and papers, Laidlaw turned and set his back to the edge of the counter. The ushers were going in and out of a drawing room at the side, from which he could hear ascending trills of women's laughter. When his registration was finally complete, he paid in cash.
Excerpted from Soldier's Joy by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 1989 Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Madison Smartt Bell (b. 1957) is a critically acclaimed novelist. Over the last two decades he has produced more than a dozen novels and story collections, as well as numerous essays and reviews. His books have been finalists for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award among other honors. Born and raised outside of Nashville, Bell’s fiction is often set in the South, or in New York where he lived as a young writer. Bell and his wife, poet Elizabeth Spires, currently live in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are the codirectors of the writing program at Goucher College.
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Date of Birth:
- August 1, 1957
- Place of Birth:
- Nashville, Tennessee
- A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981
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