From screenwriter and two-time American Fiction Award winner Clint McCown comes this wickedly funny novel about a small southern town and its odd preoccupation with war. By most standards, Lincoln, Tennessee, seems an ordinary place. Its men, having fought in every conflict from the War of 1812 to Desert Storm, are enjoying a hard-earned time of peace, which they fill with visits to famous battlefields and with tales of heroism egregiously inflated. But Nolan Vann, the feckless son of Lincoln’s local war hero, is fighting another kind of battle, to reclaim his life and, with any luck, his wife. His tour of duty takes him to the back yards and bingo halls of Lincoln’s unsung heroes, including a Jesus impersonator, a snake-handling evangelist, an aspiring zookeeper, even an inconvenient corpse. Gradually Nolan begins to see that he actually can be the hero of his own life.
WAR MEMORIALS is a “prime piece of storytelling . . . rich in the rough and tumble of everyday life . . . as well as laugh-out-loud funny” (Larry Heinemann). If Sherwood Anderson had taken up comedy or Eudora Welty had frequented the VFW, they might have written like Clint McCown.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Edition description:||1ST MARINE|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Clint McCown grew up in the South. As a journalist he earned an Associated Press award for his investigations of organized crime. He has twice won the American Fiction Prize and has written two books of poetry, one previous novel, The Member-Guest, as well as numerous screenplays. McCown is currently the chair of the creative writing program a Beloit College in Wisconsin and is at work on a screenplay for Warner Brothers.
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Exclusions in the Policy
My father got killed two times in the war. He was an eighteen-year-old bombardier and gunner with one of the B-24 squadrons based outside London, and the first telegram said his plane had gone down over France in January of 1945. There were no survivors. Then the second telegram had him dead on a different mission somewhere in Germany four months later.
This worked a double hardship on my grandparents. They'd been torn up enough the first time my father died, and when they heard about the second time they didn't know how to take it. Neither did anybody else, for that matter. The local paper had already done a big spread on him: Jimmy Vann Killed in Action. I've seen the clipping. His teachers all said what a polite student he'd been, his football coach praised him for his cheerful attitude on the field, and Flaps Pittenturf from down at the Elks Lodge called him the best baritone their barbershop quartet had ever had. "Good as Bing Crosby," he said. The whole county seemed to look on my father as a favorite son, and when the bad news broke, everybody spoke up to say how tragic it was that he was gone. Then they filed him away with all the other dead boys in town.
When he died the second time, nobody had anything left to say.
Of course, that didn't matter much in the long run, since he turned out not to be dead at all. In fact he was in perfect health, and when he turned up on his parents' doorstep a few months after the war, without so much as a wrinkle in his Army Air Corpsuniform and completely in the dark about both of his recent fatalities, the newspaper played it up as big as D-Day itself:
Jimmy Vann Alive!
It was right then, when he read his story in the paper and saw the retraction of his own glowing obituary, that my father got his calling. The whole world, he claimed, became clear to him in that single moment, and he saw the path he was supposed to take. He rented an office above Willard's Barber Shop just off the square, bought a new suit of clothes, and opened his own insurance agency.
It was a smart business move. Sure, insurance is a pretty bland proposition at least it always was for me, and I put in nine years at my father's agency. But the thing is, everybody buys insurance, and if there's something that sets you apart from the other outfits, some gimmick that makes your name come to mind before all the others, you can make a real killing. And that's how it was for my father. When he turned up alive after being twice dead, he became the man people wanted to buy insurance from. Veterans, war widows, even the old-timers at the Elks Lodge: everybody wanted a piece of his luck. He sold policies by the truckload. Pretty soon he got to be just about the richest SOB in the county.
And that's fine. I've never begrudged him his good fortune. How could I? He's put a roof over my head my whole life. I wouldn't be anything if it weren't for him, and that's the literal truth. But the thing is, his life and mine are two different cases. I never played high-school football, I never went to war, I never sang like Bing Crosby. True enough, I have sold a lot of insurance, but even that's more a credit to him than to me. Insurance was never my real calling although I'd be hard-pressed to say what is. Maybe if I'd seen all my good points written up on the obituary page, like he did, I'd have somehow figured out my best direction. But so far nothing like that's ever happened, and lately I've started to worry about running out of time. I'm already thirty-three old as Jesus. I'm underweight, with high blood pressure, and my hair falls out In clumps in a high wind. I've started to look old unlike my wife, Laney, who was a perky cheerleader thirteen years ago and looks almost the same now as she did in high school.
She acts the same, too. For example, she recently acquired a new boyfriend. Steve Pitts. I used to play baseball with Steve. He was a good left-fielder. Laney's also pregnant with a baby she won't say much about.
Well. One thing Laney didn't know was that I no longer worked for my father. He fired me for forging his name on a backdated rider for my homeowner's policy. It was a good policy dirt cheap and fairly comprehensive but it had a proviso about notifying the company in the case of any structural improvements or built-on additions. All policies have exclusions of one kind or another, and, as a rule, the cheaper the policy the more exclusions you have to watch out for. You can always upgrade your coverage if your circumstances change, but most people forget to do that unless their insurance agent reminds them. Anyway, we did some renovation last spring, and somehow I forgot to update my policy. Then a couple of months ago a thunderstorm brought a 200-year-old oak tree down through the roof of our new family room. Smashed right through the beams and knocked out two plaster walls.
The next day I got Brady Pitts that's Steve's brother to come out with his junkyard crane to lift the tree out of the house, but he ended up knocking down the third wall and splitting half the floor joists. What it came down to was a total loss, and I hadn't bought a dime's worth of coverage. Laney didn't know that part either.
The third thing she didn't know was that I'd started a new job. Instead of walking down to my father's agency in the morning, I'd go over to Tump's Pool Hall Café on the west side of the square, order one of Tump's bad breakfasts, and wait for my cousin Dell to swing by and pick me up. Dell did repo work for Hometown Finance, and I was his new assistant. What we did wasn't anything at all like selling insurance for my father. There was still some paperwork, of course, but basically my job now was to break into deadbeats' homes and cart away whatever it was they hadn't kept up the payments on. I didn't even know if what we did was legal. But compared to what I was used to, it was satisfying work.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago we made a morning call on one of the old whitewashed frame houses on Hill Street on the slope above the holding pens for the cattle auctions. The whole neighborhood was in pretty sad shape always had been, for as long as I could remember little cracker-box houses with blistered paint and broken-down porches. And there was the smell of the holding pens, which isn't really a bad smell at first sort of earthy and green although I think it might be hard to stomach over the long haul. But there was another smell, too, mixed in with it, like a rat had died in a wall somewhere. Even in my early insurance days, when I was peddling policies door-to-door, I never bothered with the houses on Hill Street. As far as I knew, I'd never even known anybody who lived there.
When we got out of Dell's pickup, he squinted along the row of houses and then focused on one a couple of doors down from where we were parked.
"That's it, Nolan," he said. "The one with the knocked-out window over the porch."
"How do you know?" I asked him. There weren't any numbers on the houses, and every place looked pretty much the same. The last thing I needed was to get arrested for hauling off the wrong stove and refrigerator.
Dell just shrugged and pushed his ball cap lower over his face. "I know all these houses," he said. Then he reached back through the window of the pickup and took his clipboard from the front seat. He stood there a minute in the quiet street looking over the papers, then frowned and tossed the clipboard back inside the cab. "Better watch yourself on this one," he said. "Rathburn don't go out much anymore. We might run into him."
Rathburn was a common enough name around town the family had branches all over the county so the name didn't mean much to me at first. It did bother me, though, to think that we might have to deal with another human being. The repo business was hard enough with nobody home, but when the clients were there to watch you take back their stuff, you never knew what might happen.
"How do you want to work it?" I asked, although I knew the answer. In my first few weeks on the job we'd made over a hundred house calls, and the drill was always the same. Dell would wait by the back door while I knocked on the front. If somebody answered, I'd tell them what I was there for, show them a claims sheet to make it look like we had some kind of authority, and give them one last chance to cough up the cash. They never had it, of course.
If it was a woman at the door, I'd explain that we'd have to take her washer, or the TV, or whatever the hell it was, and she'd let us right in. A woman won't bolt once you've spoken face-to-face.
The men were another story. Usually they'd tell me to wait a minute while they got the money, but then they'd lock the door and hightail it out the back. That's when Dell would make a sort of half-hearted grab for them, not really wanting to catch anybody but just trying to keep them preoccupied enough so they'd forget to lock the back door behind them. Dell is one stout sonofabitch, built like a grizzly, so he could put himself in harm's way like that and come out fine. Not me, though I don't have the right bulk for real intimidation. That's one reason I was the front-door man. The other reason was that most everybody knows Dell by sight, and if he came knocking, no one would ever open up at all.
Anyway, Dell circled around through the neighbors' backyards and took his post at the rear corner of the Rathburn house. When I saw he was ready, I strolled up onto the front porch and rapped on the screen door. No answer, so I knocked again, hard enough to rattle the screen in the frame, and listened for sounds inside the house. Everything was quiet, so I hopped off the side of the porch and walked back to where Dell was pressing his face up to a dirty rear window trying to see into the kitchen.
"I don't think anybody's home," I told him. I rubbed away a patch of window dirt with the heel of my hand and tried to stare through the shadows, but it was no use, the sun was too strong behind us, and when I wiped away the grime all I got was a better look at my own squinty face in the glass.
"Maybe he went back to Mobile," Dell said. "He's crazy enough."
That's when I realized whose house we were about to break into. It didn't seem possible, though. "Is this Jerry Rathburn's place?" I asked.
Dell stepped onto the crumbling concrete stoop and jiggled the doorknob. "Well, I think it actually belongs to his brother Ned. But, yeah, Jerry's the one who lives here. When he's in town, anyway. He showed up at the office one day about four months ago. I told Ray not to loan him any money, but he and Rathburn go too far back. I might as well have been talking to a stump."
I'd seen Jerry Rathburn maybe three times in my life. The most memorable was fourteen years ago at Bryce Holman's high-school graduation party. I don't know why Jerry was there, because he was about eight or nine years older than the rest of us. I think he'd just come home from one of his hitches in the army. He wasn't all that close to Bryce as far as I knew, so he might have just been there selling drugs. That was the general word on Jerry Rathburn that he'd got himself all screwed up with drugs when he was in Vietnam. Anyway, along about midnight the Harvel twins, Barstow and Jug, got into a fistfight. That was pretty normal for them they were always trying to prove which one was boss. But this was the worst they'd ever been. I swear it looked like they were about to kill each other. Then somebody yelled, Jerry, see if you cain't break that up, I guess because Rathburn was the oldest one there and people figured he must know something from being in the army. So he walked over to where the Harvels were rolling around in the dirt and stood there for a minute like he didn't know quite what to do. Then he took a .22 pistol out of his army jacket and shot them both in the leg. That pretty much brought the party to a close.
"I thought Jerry Rathburn was in jail," I said.
"He was," Dell answered. "But he got out."
Jerry was a big local story last year. His wife I forget her name, but she used to work at the Wal-Mart out on the Huntsville highway anyway, she must've got fed up with Jerry because one night she just packed her suitcases and went to Mobile to live with her sister. Jerry drove down and fetched her home, which turned out to be the wrong thing to do, because the sister swore out a complaint. Pretty soon the FBI kicked in Jerry's door and hauled his ass off for kidnapping. Noreen that was her name, Noreen was tied to a chair in the living room, mad as hell. And it happened right here in this very house.
"I thought they gave him ten years for that last one," I said. "Why'd they let him go?"
Dell shook his head and smiled. "I didn't say they let him go. I said he got out."
I ducked clear of the window and pressed in close against the house. "Christ, Dell," I said, "no wonder nobody answered the door. He's probably in there right now with a goddamn shotgun." The siding felt hot through the back of my shirt, but I didn't move away. "And where's the sheriff in all this?" I wanted to know. "I mean, there's laws, for godsakes."
Dell just laughed. "Nolan, you need a more tolerant attitude," he said. "This ain't the insurance business there's a lot more give-and-take. Not everything's written down."
"Dell " I said. I meant to argue with him, but somehow the words just wouldn't collect themselves. I stared down at my feet. Even my shoes, I realized, were wrong for this kind of work. Cordovan loafers. What kind of moron wore loafers for hijacking furniture? And that's all this repo job amounted to, really. These weren't white-collar financial transactions we were negotiating; our job was to break down the door, shove people aside, and get the appliances up onto the truck. I should have been wearing sneakers-high-tops, with strong ankle support and good traction to help me hold my share of the load. Shoes I could run in.
Dell was right this wasn't the insurance business, and nothing I'd learned selling policies was relevant anymore. If I belonged anywhere in repo work it was at a desk in the front office with Ray, filling out forms and explaining payment plans. I was comfortable on the fine-print end of things. Ironing out the black-and-white agreements. Outlining the rules people had to play by. Making sure we all understood what was expected and what the consequences were if somebody failed.
That was a system I could understand. My father understood it, too, and that's why he had to fire me. If I couldn't play by the rules, the system had no use for me. I could appreciate that.
But I never thought I'd drift so far into the fringes. The world I lived in now was not my father's. Here an escaped kidnapper could move back to the scene of his crime and take out a loan for a new stove and refrigerator. It was like being in a foreign country. I couldn't read the landscape. Back when I was selling door-to-door, I got to where I could walk into a house and tell just from the magazines on the coffee table what my chances were. But the people I dealt with now didn't subscribe to magazines. Their coffee tables were old ammo crates.
Dell hitched up his slacks and scanned the rear of the house. "You ready to go inside?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "The doors are locked. Maybe we ought to just leave this one alone."
"You're not worried about Jerry, are you?" He reached down and drew a brick out of the weeds beside the stoop and tested its heft. "You ever meet him?"
"Here and there," I said.
"Well, he's not near as bad as the newspapers made him out to be. Give you the shirt off his back if he likes you." Dell stepped up to the door and rapped the brick sharply against one of the small glass panes. Nothing happened. He tried again, harder this time, but the brick still wouldn't go through. Dell looked at me and then drummed his fingertips against the tiny window. "I'll be damned," he said. "It's Plexiglas."
"So can we go now?" I asked, though I knew Dell wouldn't give up that easily.
He stepped off the stoop and examined the kitchen window. "This one's glass," he said, tapping his fingers lightly against it. "You go get the dolly off the truck. Door'll be open by the time you get back."
I still felt uneasy, but at least this time Dell would be the first one inside. That part usually fell to me, on account of Dell's size. If a window was too high off the ground, he couldn't hoist himself up well enough to shimmy through. This time, though, there was a gas meter just below the sill, so once he got the pane punched out he could step right into the kitchen.
I was about halfway to the pickup when I heard the window shatter. It seemed way too loud, and I looked around quickly to see if anybody else was there to hear it. But everything was dead calm. There were no kids, no dogs, no people on porches, no traffic in the street. Ideal conditions for repo work.
A minute later, as I rolled the dolly past the broken window, I could see Dell sitting inside at the kitchen table. He was alone, which was more than fine with me. I swung the dolly onto the stoop and started ahead through the open doorway, but one of the canvas belts snagged on a wheel and I had to stop to untangle it. I still couldn't see much of the kitchen, just the torn yellow linoleum and a painted cupboard on the far wall. But when I finally got the dolly inside, it was the smell of the place that nearly floored me.
"Holy Jesus," I said, "what's that stink?"
Bad smells are a normal part of the job, of course. Sometimes there'd be meat left in the refrigerators, and if it was at a house where the electricity had been cut off, the stench would be enough to make you gag. Dell just sat there, kind of staring at his hands like he didn't hear me, so I slid the dolly under the side of the stove and then pulled open the refrigerator door, just to check. It was chugging away fine, with nothing in it but a couple of old carrots and a six-pack of Pabst.
Dell pushed himself up from the chair like he was a hundred years old and then carefully looped the dolly belt over the top of the stove. "That stink belongs to Jerry," he said.
I glanced toward the table where Dell had been sitting, as if I thought Jerry Rathburn might suddenly be sitting there, too. Dell cinched the belt tight and buckled it, then wedged his work boot against the axle of the dolly. "I'll foot it while you tilt it into place," he said.
"Sure," I told him, but for some reason I turned the other way and walked straight through into the front room of the house, where the smell was so strong you could almost feel it against your skin. Jerry was there, all right, slumped in a big chair by the fireplace. He'd been dead long enough that you could tell it without having to look too close. I'd never seen a dead person before except in funeral homes, where everything gets tampered with. But this was nothing like that. Nobody had closed Jerry's eyes, or combed his hair, or put color on his cheeks, or sewed his lips shut. Nobody had even kept the flies away.
Dell walked in behind me, but didn't speak.
"What do you think happened to him?" I asked.
"I think he died," Dell answered. "That's all." He handed me a half-sheet of yellow notebook paper. "I found this on the kitchen table."
It was handwritten. The letters were shaky, but big and loopy, the way grade-school kids write. Anyplace but Arlington, it read.
"Maybe he killed himself," I said, though I felt bad right away for saying it because it seemed too disrespectful. Besides, Jerry Rathburn wasn't anybody I could have ever second-guessed.
Dell took the note back and folded it away into his pocket. "Naw," he said quietly. "I just think he knew what was coming. Jerry'd been in and out of VA hospitals for the last twenty years. He got sprayed with that Agent Orange stuff when he was in Vietnam. Been dying ever since."
I wondered what the newspaper would say about Jerry Rathburn's death, if it would say he was one more local boy who got killed in a war. I knew it was unlikely. Newspapers look for easy labels. They'd do the story as a final chapter on his kidnapping case, since that was the way they knew him best.
One time I found an old camera in my parents' attic. It had a roll of film inside, and for all I knew it might have been there for ten or fifteen years, or maybe even longer, just waiting to be developed. I took it in to the Wal-Mart right away, and for two days I could hardly think about anything else. It was like I thought I don't know that when the pictures came back I'd really see something. Like some missing puzzle piece would finally be put back in place. I thought they might be pictures of my dead mother, or my grandparents, or even my father long ago, before he got swallowed up by his lucky tour of duty in the war. I thought that whatever was on that film would make me feel like I understood things a little bit better. But then I picked up the pictures: just a bunch of weird-looking double exposures of lamps and checkerboard linoleum floors. I don't know what the hell they were.
This was a lot like that, somehow. Looking at Jerry Rathburn sitting in that overstuffed chair, slowly caving in on himself, I felt like I was supposed to be seeing something, like I'd finally had this accidental look behind the curtain and all the mysteries were right there, laid out plain. Only no matter how hard I looked, I couldn't make sense of the picture.
"We'd better move on," Dell said.
I followed him back to the kitchen, where we rocked the stove onto the dolly and swiveled it toward the door. Stoves were easy just big tin cans. I knew the refrigerator would be more of a problem, especially with no pavement between the back door and the street. The ground was still a little soft from all the rain we'd been having, so the dolly wheels were likely to bog down.
I wasn't worried, though. We always got the goods back to the truck, no matter how much ground we had to tear up along the way. I didn't even care anymore if anyone saw us, though I guess that could have meant trouble, under the circumstances. There's no repo manual to go by or if there is, Dell's never showed it to me so I don't really know how much we're allowed to get away with. But I guess we could have been arrested for not reporting a dead body, or breaking and entering, or grand theft, or any number of other technical violations. Trespassing, at the very least.
If that had happened, I wonder if my father would have come to bail me out. I suppose he would've, if I'd asked him to, as a matter of duty.
But maybe I wouldn't have asked him. Maybe I'd have given up my right to a phone call and just settled in for however long they wanted me to stay. Then he could've read all about it in the papers.
Or maybe I'd have used my call unwisely. Maybe I'd have rung up a radio station and asked them to dedicate a song to somebody. Like Jerry Rathburn, for dying in such a plain, straightforward way, no loose ends, no resuscitations. Or better yet, a song for Steve Pitts and Laney. A love song, something upbeat, something bubblegum, wishing them a good life somewhere else, anywhere else, even as far away as Mobile. Wishing them a pink stucco house with chameleons skittering along the walls. Plenty of chameleons. I wonder what she'd have thought if I did that.
But then I wonder about a lot of things I'll never know the answers to. I wonder how the wind gets started. I wonder how clouds hold themselves together. I wonder how trees turn water into bark.
I wonder why we ever built our family room.
I guess it was just as well the police didn't show up, or the neighbors. I've figured out a lot lately about the way things snake together, but if somebody threw a question at me about how Jerry Rathburn and I fit into the same picture which I know we do I still don't think I could have said things right. I mean, it's like when you try to sell a whole-life policy to some kid fresh out of high school, and he asks what the fine print means. You start out saying, Sure, sure. I can explain all this. But then you see his puzzled face, and know you haven't got a prayer.
Table of Contents
Contents Exclusions in the Policy 3 History Lessons 15 Cheap Imitations 37 Stone Bridge 51 Cottonmouths 71 Monsters of the Midway 93 The Fifty-third Sermon 115 Buried Treasure 135 Some Assembly Required 151 Demolition Derby 169 Revelations 189 That Angle at Which Montgomery Fell 205
What People are Saying About This
What I like best in this gritty and tender and crazily funny book about men and women and the war for love we are constantly waging, is that Clint McCown has finally told the truth about being a human: We have to make a living. We have to find love. And we have to take responsibility, whether we like it or not, for who we are. War Memorials is wonderfully well written and meaningful to boot. What more can a reader ask?
Clint McCown’s War Memorials is a story about war of all kinds and memorials both obvious and subtle. Here is a prime piece of storytelling, rich in the rough and tumble of everyday life. Tinctured with ordinary melancholy, wry, witty, and sly, as well as laugh-out-loud funny.
In this wickedly funny novel, Clint McCown traces the aftershocks of a violent century as they reverberate through a small Southern town. Old grievances go off like forgotten land mines. New allegiances form under the pressure of loss and hope. Along the way we meet a Jesus impersonator, a snake-handling evangelist, a maestro of dynamite, a cook impaled by an arrow, an aspiring zookeeper, and a cast of other offbeat characters, all whirling around a comic hero who’s struggling to mend a broken marriage.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nolan Vann is having a rough year. He just lost his job (fired by his father for forging an insurance policy), his wife is having an affair (and is possibly pregnant by the "other man"), and to top it all off, he's forced to work as a repo man to pay the bills. Oh, and he kills his wife's pet lizard.In this slight novel, Clint McCown takes the small Southern town and rehashes familiar characters to give us a comic novel. The readers somehow feels as though we've been down this path before. What makes McCown's novel different, though, is his innate understanding (and this is reflected in the dialogue and actions of his characters) of the Southern persona. Whether he's describing a hunt for cottonmouths in the river (for the church, of course), or Nolan's rival blowing himself up on his bulldozer, McCown has the perfect ear for true Southern idiosyncrasy.Albeit a novel about Nolan's search to regain his "manhood", it is also a search for the younger generation to understand why their fathers fought so hard and proud for their country. It is also a search to understand the hidden meanings behind people's actions and why we hurt each other.I'm not sure this novel works out many of these problems, or even resolves the thornier question of whether Nolan gets his life back together, faces his demons and lives a fruitful life, but it does have the unique quality of showing a human face to failure and eventually, redemption. The power of the novel lies in its ability to evoke a place and a feeling of "Southernness". The plot is ordinary, but the description and dialogue is refreshing and enjoyable.This is a novel for those who enjoy Clyde Edgerton or other "quirky" Southern writers, perhaps even the quiet gentility of a Eudora Welty story. Clint McCown is an author who should be looked out for in the future. We should be so lucky to meet some of his small-town characters in his next, bright novel.(Read February 2002)