I didn’t think I would be interested in reading a book narrated by a racist, racy Republican, who served in Vietnam and openly speaks about killing “gooks,” but, well, here we are on a Sunday, and I just finished Matthew Quick’s 2017 novel, The Reason You’re Alive. Quick’s book was incredible, and it was one of those things where I knew it was going to be incredible within the first few pages. That’s because certain stories and books have that narrative flow to them that immediately captures my attention and reads at such a fast clip, as this one did. “Flow” is a hard term to define when it comes to reading (and even harder to capture as a writer), but you know it when you read it.
David Granger is the foul-mouthed, blunt, hard-around-the-edges with a shockingly poignant soft middle, narrator of the book. As it turns out, he’s telling his story for one of those organizations that collects the stories of Vietnam veterans before it’s too late. Seeing as how David is not only in his 70s, but crashed his BMV into a telephone pole requiring brain surgery and now has seizures, it’s a good time as any for him to start telling his story, and what a doozy it is.
If you’ve seen the 2008 Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino, then David is a lot like the Walt Kowalski character, except the film is about a Korean War veteran, whereas this concerns a Vietnam veteran. David is a curmudgeon, who thinks his liberal son, Hank, an art dealer, is a weak, girly man, and he can’t stand his son’s Dutch wife. He sprinkles in his opinions about liberals, jihadists, communists, and every group of American imaginable. But then, we come to find out, as one might suspect, life and people are more complex than they may seem. David is good friends with Sue, a Vietnamese woman, whose dad was also a Vietnam veteran. He calls sue his “genetically Vietnamese friend” and talks about her little “yellow hands.” He’s also friends with his spin class instructor (yes, spin class), Timmy, or as David calls him, “Gay Timmy,” and his lover, Johnny; they go to musicals together (yes, musicals). Also, he’s friends with the “blacks” at the gym, who let him play basketball, and one of them, Theodore, ends up marrying Sue. He also has a soft spot for his granddaughter Ella, and in one scene, expresses how much he loves brushing her hair because it reminds him of brushing his dead wife, Jessica’s, hair. Finally, even though he presents himself as this tough, manly man, when it comes down to it, David is like any other man: He desperately seeks the approval of his father, also a veteran, but of WWII. I thought it particularly striking that David talked about how his dad’s war had a real purpose and a tangible place in which to feel connected to that purpose (Normandy), whereas his war, Vietnam, had no real purpose and no real tangible place to go back to and feel any sort of vindication in that purpose. War is hell.
Now, it’s obviously worth saying, as David would chastise me for saying like I’m a Hank clone, but just because you have friends who are Asian, gay, and black doesn’t mean you can’t be racist and homophobic. Of course you can be. But I also don’t want to make it seem like David is some cartoonish villain and mentioning he likes brushing his granddaughter’s hair is supposed to humanize him. He is a human! Warts and all. I think that’s more the point of it all.
We come to learn that Hank got his love of art from Jessica, who was a painter, and that Jessica killed herself in a fire and burned seemingly all of her paintings, too. But here’s where David is an especially complicated figure because as Sue states to Hank about why she likes being around his father, if you look past what David says and instead look at his actions, he’s a pretty solid dude. Case-in-point, Jessica was raped by a fellow Vietnam veteran at a house party when she was still in high school. The man impregnated her. When she went to confront him, he put a gun to her head. David, looking for a different fellow Vietnam veteran (and brother to Jessica), he interrupted the scene. He coldcocked the dude, likely killing him (he’s not sure if his punch did it or the drugs). He and Jessica then got married and David raised Hank as if he was his own son.
He blames himself for Jessica’s depression and suicide, though, because of Vietnam and him bringing his night terrors, PTSD, and baggage along for the ride with her. By the end of the book, I think David understands that Jessica’s depression predated him and he isn’t to blame for her suicide. He’s also ashamed of what he did to Clayton Fire Bear, a Native American who served alongside him. Clayton Fire Bear was scalping enemy soldiers and David was ordered to bring him to heel. So, he forced Clayton Fire Bear at gunpoint to pick up cigarette butts with his mouth and dispose them into a hot trash can. He then stole a family heirloom of sorts, a bear knife.
So, the two tracks we’re working on through this novel is a.) David trying to understand his son better and his son, in turn, trying to understand him better; and b.) David finding closure to what he did to Clayton Fire Bear in Vietnam by returning his knife to him. Over time, after a botched attempt to play cupid between Sue and Hank, along with bringing Timmy and Johnny to the house, Hank begins to see his dad in a new light. And I think David begins to understand why Hank is the way he is: He, too, blames himself for his mother’s death, in the way kids guilt trip themselves about such things that clearly have nothing to do with them. As for Clayton Fire Bear, David visits him to return the knife and learns that Clayton Fire Bear broke into his home decades ago with the intent on scalping David, as he promised back in Vietnam, and instead, found Hank. He then was going to kill Hank, but couldn’t go through with it, and in fact, Jessica was there. Instead of freaking out at a stranger in her home with a knife mere feet from her baby, she was understanding of yet another Vietnam veteran having a breakdown, and even showed Clayton Fire Bear her paintings, gifting one of them.
Clayton Fire Bear had the only surviving painting of Jessica’s, the namesake of the book, The Reason You’re Alive, and the one David considers Jessica’s masterpiece. The painting has the Vietnam jungle, with all of its would-be killers lurking, such as Agent Orange, the Viet Cong, snakes and so forth, in the background, with David, decked out in his soldierly uniform, holding baby Hank in the foreground, with Hank’s umbilical cord acting as a bubble against all of those dangers. The interpretation is that Hank is alive because of David and his choice to step up as a father. Because had he not, Jessica was planning on killing her pregnant self. Clayton Fire Bear and David exchange these “heirlooms” in a rather beautiful, emotional scene.
Quick’s book is a surprising one, because while I’m not opposed to exposing myself to what hard-right Republicans think — I’m on Twitter, after all, and I think at this point, I could do a fair imitation of one — it’s another matter to read an entire book narrated by one. And yet. I liked David, his warts and all! And I like the way Quick basically sums up David, and his book, at the end with a four-word mantra for life: Live nasty, live forever. I’m not sure that is an ethos I would personally abide and live by, but it does explain David and his life quite nicely.
If you’re into Chuck Palahniuk’s books, Quick’s writing style reminded me of him. It also makes me want to go read his other book made into a great film, The Silver Linings Playbook.