A sweeping epic of history and identity
Early in “The Volunteer,” Salvatore Scibona’s outstanding, expansive new novel, a boy nicknamed Vollie stands at the bedroom window of his 1950s Iowa home. Feverish from meningitis, he looks down in terror to see “himself on fire”: “Flames shot from the sleeves, the collar. Vollie watched as his legs too were set ablaze; the ashy pants floated in the heat.”
This hallucinatory vision eventually becomes explicable: Vollie’s parents are burning his infected clothes, all the way down to his school shoes. But for the moment, the boy feels deep wonder: “if Vollie himself had just been turned to nothing out there, what was this limbed creature inside the house that watched it all and shivered with cold and still hungered for supper? . . . The self that had seemed all of him was only a part; it could be shed and left behind.”
The anxiously-awaited second novel by Scibona, whose debut, “The End,’’ was a National Book Award finalist, follows the selves that Vollie sheds and leaves behind throughout his life. First, he volunteers to serve as a Marine in Vietnam, leaving Iowa and his family behind for good; after the war, he takes on a new identity to work in Queens for the intelligence service; he then sheds this self and sets out West, living on a former commune in New Mexico and falling in love with a woman named Louisa.
With each move, Vollie thinks back to that childhood fire, finding the scene of self-erasure both tempting and terrifying. It’s tempting because there’s a peace that comes when the “mind’s false story of itself went quiet”; because there’s a clarity in seeing that the “thing he had formerly understood as himself was only a cluster of phenomena, predictable and repeated”; because, after you’ve experienced loss, there’s a bliss in destroying the self.
Yet self-immolation is also a source of dread because, without the self and the bonds that constitute it, how can there be love or responsibility? Like “King Lear,” that great exploration of “unaccommodated man,” “The Volunteer” dramatizes the beauty and terror of self-undoing — and the role love might play in reconstituting a life.
The novel opens in 2010 with a Latvian boy named Janis — abandoned in a Hamburg airport by his father, all ties to the world cut, all markers of identity erased. It closes in 2029, after the conclusion of the imagined Wars of Slavic Reunification, with Janis alone again, now called Wilhelm Köhler: “He liked the name. It came from nothing and pointed nowhere and left him free.” The novel’s spiraling plot, from the 2000s to Vietnam-era America and back again, reveals what Janis is to Vollie, what Vollie might be to Janis. Because that’s the thing: Even if we can shed our selves, we can’t shed those whose lives we’ve influenced, even helped determine.
Scibona’s first novel was epic in style, exhibiting a distinctively American voice: capacious and cadenced, grand and talky at the same time. But it was relatively small in scale, taking place on a single day in an Italian neighborhood of Cleveland in 1953. By contrast, “The Volunteer” is epic every way. There are bravura set pieces in Vietnam, in 1970s Queens, where Vollie works on a mysterious intelligence mission, and in the otherworldly landscapes of the American Southwest.
The prose in “The Volunteer” is less obviously brilliant than it was in “The End”; the style is quieter, almost restrained for stretches. But the lyrical heights of this second novel are, if anything, even higher. Of a talented basketball player, we read, “The ball didn’t descend from his hand and bounce as he dribbled, it leapt to his fingers, and he threw it away, and it flew back as if it loved him.” As Vollie drives through the Southwest, “The country bloomed with rusty rocks and cattle on which rain fell in storms he could see for many miles before the car went under the roofs of cloud.” What perfect pitch, what perfect rhythm. These are sentences that are in love with the world and that make us love the world, too.
“The Volunteer” will be described as a great historical novel, and it is. The section in which Vollie finds himself caught at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive, for instance, places us back in a time that doesn’t yet know what Vietnam will come to mean. Scibona describes bombing with precision and poetry: “Not a rending of the sky and a flash as from lightning, but a world that opened and opened from below, a world with a sun inside it that burst forth from the ground.”
But “The Volunteer” reads most powerfully as an exploration of the nature and problem of selfhood. In this grand novel, the grandest topic is the “sense of loneliness that [is] the soul’s inborn affliction” — and the things we do to salve such pain.
By Salvatore Scibona
Penguin Press, 419 pp., $2
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Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’