The Volunteer

Salvatore Scibona

Jonathan Cape £12.99

IT may be meaningless today to describe a novel as ‘paranoid’. Not because the world isn’t a complete mess ruled by evil, but because paranoia isn’t what it used to be.

In Salvatore Scibona’s The Volunteer, though, set largely in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s still useful. Everyone’s paranoid: Vietnam soldiers, CIA operatives, Nixon of course, hippies (perhaps the most paranoid people ever). “To inhabit a place is to drink the water there.” Secret codes of numbers govern things; there’s an unreliability about names. Paranoia and hurt are passed on from generation to generation until they run up against the world of now, where they lose steam. This is a fable about America losing steam.

But before Scibona gets to his story, he attempts to trip us up, run us off the road, possibly to suggest a difficult, dream-like approach to the world as he wants to describe it. We may be in the hands of a writer, a good one, who nonetheless thinks that having taken on the complexity of the world, he must immediately backtrack, for the sake of his (American) audience. He can suddenly, sedulously and intricately explain things. Do we need to be told how a jet engine works?

The message of The Volunteer would seem to be that men are hardly loveable creatures. When they get together and create something like the United States of America, or the Vietnam War, out of pure bitter confusion, the effect will be felt for generations. It will be unstoppable. Whether Scibona’s opinion is that this is because of DNA, or just through a Reagan-esque "trickle-down" of the various emotional delusions from which males suffer, it’s difficult to say.

The novel takes us from the American Middle West to New Mexico, to Europe, the Middle East, and to Vietnam, where its most effective episodes are set. Soldiers watching a movie: "Lauren Bacall looked out of the convex box into the night that reeked of monsoon funk, with lust and reproach in her face as if to say, I dare you to forget me too.”

Vollie’s parents nicknamed him The Volunteer and it stuck. A farm boy, he signs up for duty in Vietnam when his parents won’t let him buy a car. Here begins a thread of hurt, which persists through the novel. Hurt (whether we understand it or not) is the reason men do, or react to, everything. And the point is to inflict it on just about everyone.

After Vietnam, Vollie’s taken under the wing of the CIA, in the person of a shambling, Bible-mumbling spook. Vollie is sent under cover to spy on an old and ill European man in New York, never being told why. This ends badly.

During a stint on a commune in the southwest, Vollie meets the love of his life, and takes her on, along with her son. The son becomes a violent criminal, but then a soldier too. And he begets a son, in Europe. Fathers and sons compete throughout the book in terms of hate, incomprehension and inertia.

Scibona is profoundly versatile; poetic. One hears Steinbeck, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Powers, Barry Gifford. Yet at times there is something else, grandiose, operatic, a less than useful elegiac tone, somewhat like Cormac McCarthy’s. It gets in the way of depth.

Scibona’s a witty writer too, but he’s bottling it up for some reason. His very best writing is in mordant descriptions of the present-day USA: "A truck stop advertised bunks and twenty-five-cent showers. The glass coolers inside offered no beer for sale, and he asked the young bunk clerk if this was a dry county, and the clerk didn’t know what that meant, so Vollie dropped his bag on the bunk and went into the town center where he found a tavern: a museum of deer staring nobly and without bodies from the dark cheap wood panelling, the animal eyes quiet and blank as the eyes of Roman statues over the dim mirrored bar. Then, on the snowy television, Dentu-Creme gave you back your smile. And Arrid had something in it that not every spray had, aluminium chlorohydrate. And Wish-Bone Italian was for people who really liked salads.”