2 excellent new novels, both set during the Korean War
There are very few living American writers it would be fair to pair up with Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison in a review. Robert Olmstead, however, brings enough poetic oomph to his battlefield renderings to manage just fine. Home by Morrison and The Coldest Night by Olmstead, both released this season, are new novels set during the Korean War, and – like Jayne Anne Phillips’ outstanding 2009 novel, “Lark & Termite," still my favorite work of fiction about that war – both argue for greater attention to the impact of a war that is too often a footnote in high school history class between World War II and the Vietnam War.
1. "Home," by Toni Morrison
Home, Morrison’s most recent novel after “A Mercy,” compresses her poetic skill and impressionistic abilities into 160 pages. Korean War veteran Frank Money has been back stateside for a year, grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder and too much alcohol, when he gets a letter from someone he’s never met, telling him: “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”
The she is Cee, his little sister and the first person he ever took care of. The two grew up in Lotus, Ga., “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.” The Moneys moved there to live with their grandparents after white men “some in hoods, some not” gave everyone in their Texas town 24 hours to clear out. Their parents work two jobs, and so Cee and Frank are left to the abuse of their step-grandmother and the neglect of their grandfather.
When we first meet Frank, he’s handcuffed to a hospital bed in Seattle, pretending to be unconscious to avoid another dose of morphine. He’s been picked up by police for an incident he can’t remember, and suffers from episodes that start when all the color drains from the world. (And then there’s the specter in the blue zoot suit, who periodically appears to puzzle Frank and the reader. But Morrison has more on him later.)
Desperate to get to Cee, Frank escapes barefoot into the cold and a preacher helps get him started on his journey.
The novel intersperses italicized pages where Frank talks to the narrator with chapters from the point of view of everyone from Cee and their grandmother to the lover Frank left behind. As Frank gets closer to the hometown he loathes, he begins to confront his past horrors – more recently from Korea and more distantly from his childhood – and to recover some sense of himself.