In Country, a novel by Bobbie Ann Mason. Harper &Row 247 pp. $15.95
Reviewed by John Egerton
Vol. 8, No.1, 1986, pp. 20-22
The tumultuous decade of the 1960s still hovers over us like a great gray cloud, a mighty shadow of lingering hope and despair and wonder. We look back now with amazement bordering on disbelief at the exhilarating and traumatic ascensions and plunges that our society somehow survived in those years-black liberation and the movements it spawned for women and other minorities, the war in Southeast Asia, multiple assassinations, moon landings, urban and environmental crises, the drug culture, and much more. It may be emotional exhaustion as much as anything else that has slowed the runaway roller-coaster since then; in any case, the rumble of revolutionary thunder seems now to echo less frequently and more distantly.
Trying to make sense of those times, to tote up the gains
and losses and chart new directions, is a complex and unending task. We look to participants and eyewitnesses, to politicians and commentators, to scholars and creative artists for a better understanding of what went on and what the consequences will be. The picture is not yet clear, though, and may not be for a long time to come. Most historians regard the period as still too recent for definitive interpretation and analysis (some would call it both literally and figuratively too close for comfort). Novelists, on the other hand, may feel no such constraints; armed with literary license, they can probe selectively, explore at will, blend reality with imagination, and finally give us sweeping or tightly focused visions of our former selves.
Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country, a novel, looks back to Vietnam from the vantage point of a small town in western Kentucky in 1984. Her characters are working-class white people living in the present. On the surface, hers is a simple tale briefly told. But in the spare and unadorned language we stumble upon some unexpected and disturbing images: of Vietnam’s continuing legacy, of mass culture seeping into the pores of the society, of an out-of-the-way country place that could be Anywhere USA, of ordinary people like us who seem harmless and even at times humorous but also aimless and immobilized.
An eighteen-year-old girl named Samantha Hughes–Sam to everyone–is the central figure. She lives with her thirty-five-year old uncle, Emmett Smith, a Vietnam veteran whose only regular activities are having breakfast at McDonald’s with some of his old army buddies and watching M*A*S*H reruns on TV. When his father asks him why he doesn’t get a job and “stop fooling around,” Emmett answers: “Ain’t nothing worth doing. Most jobs are stupid.”
Sam’s father was killed in Vietnam, and her mother has remarried and moved away. Her grandparents live nearby, but she seldom sees them. She has finished high school and is thinking about going to college-either that or going back to her counter job at Burger Boy. Her current boyfriend, Lonnie Malone, is a bag boy at Kroger, and her closest friend is a girl named Dawn who has just discovered she is pregnant.
Emmett has health problems that Sam believes are caused by residual poisoning from Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant we used so extensively in Vietnam. She wants to know what really happened in the war, to know how her father died and what Emmett and his companions experienced there, but no one seems able to tell her anything: “She knew very well that on TV, people always had the words to express their feelings, while in real life hardly anyone ever did. On TV, they had script writers.” In Hopewell, Kentucky, a.k.a. Anywhere USA, no one seems to grasp what is happening, let alone have the words to explain it.
Sam and Emmett and their friends seem utterly shackled by contemporary culture. Their reference points are in television and music videos, supermarkets and shopping malls, processed foods and packaged entertainment. History to them reaches only as far back as the sixties, “a much better time to be young than now.” Far from being dangerous or menacing, they are simply ineffectual, even impotent. If they have jobs, the work is routinized and low-paying and dead-end; if they have family ties, the connections are tenuous and habitual.
Emmett and the other veterans, physically or mentally scarred by their war experiences, seem destined never to recover; now in their mid-thirties, they have been old men
since they came home fifteen years ago. But Sam and her friends also seem old before their time, though they are still teenagers, and when the two generations come together, they find common ground in stereo music and cable TV, in Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Carson, in HBO, MTV, Cinemax. Whatever can’t be captured in a half-hour sitcom or a seven-minute music video is not likely to be seen and heard, let alone remembered.
The Southeast Asian experience, whether terrifying of thrilling, is the only thing different in the lives of the older men. Those who were “in country”–in Vietnam–know it is all that sets them apart; some of them resent that, others take pride in it. Sam’s concern for Emmett’s health and her curiosity about her father’s death are the only compelling interests she seems able to sustain.
Set as it is in 1984 (the same year it apparently was written, since it was published in 1985), In Country is full of the most contemporary and immediate references–Reagan, Mondale, Ferraro, and so forth. Even so, the book portrays characters who are isolated and adrift, lost in inner space with no apparent hope of rescue–or even a clear sense that they are lost. The bleakness of their plight is all the more poignant because they seem so real, so believable, so familiar.
One of the marks of Bobbie Ann Mason’s skill as a writer is her ability to disguise intent. Is she telling us, like Jean Paul Sartre, that our destiny as human beings is to wander aimlessly in a meaningless universe? Is she describing reality as she sees it in one little corner of the globe? Has she simply invented a few fictional characters who can’t “express their feelings” because they don’t have TV script writers to give them a voice? Is she poking fun at lower-middle-class white people in the small-town South, or being critical of them, or showing sympathy for them, or celebrating them?
Who’s to say? You pay your $15.95 and you take your choice. Along the way, you may encounter some people you’ll think you’ve met before–friends, neighbors, relatives–or even catch a glimpse of yourself. Bobbie Ann Mason’s strength is in fashioning familiar characters out of plain, direct, straightforward language. I am moved by her power to do that. I only wish her people were sometimes able to rise above themselves and do something really wild -cancel the cable subscription, sell the stereo, boycott the shopping malls, or even, heaven help us, break the habit of dining daily under the golden arches.
John Egerton lives in Nashville. He is author of many essays and books, including Generations (Univ. Press of Kentucky) which won the Southern Regional Council’s Lillian Smith Award in 1984.