"It's one of life's more infuriating facts that things we do when we are too young to do things wisely affect us well into our old age. Tommy Jack, the protagonist of Eric Gansworth's "Extra Indians," is one of the thousands of men who went to Vietnam when they were little more than children. There, he witnessed horrific violence, lost his high school sweetheart, found a best friend and fell in love. It's the violence, however, that lasts, infecting his friendships and love for the rest of his life.
Gansworth's novel covers many things -- Vietnam, Native American identity, American life from reality TV to academia -- but it's the effect of this violence on one decent man's life that is the real subject of this sad, stirring book.
Jack, the truck-driving, antique-collecting main character, is at once a simple and complex man. He's never forgiven his wife for first marrying another man when they were both 19 -- it's come between them for 35 years. Likewise, he walked away from his true love at age 22 and, while yearning, has never repaired the situation. He loves his adopted son, but when a bitter fight breaks out, he doesn't have the energy to defend him. He's quiet and cynical, yet when we meet him he is driving from Texas to Minnesota to witness a meteor shower -- not to ponder the cold, immutable beauty of the universe, but to wish upon a falling star. World-weary, he still yearns for something specific to happen, or perhaps more to the point, to not have happened.
One of these might be the death of his best friend, Fred Howkowski. Howkowski had gone out West, looking for a career as an actor. A Native American from the New York Onondoga nation, he found himself looking for work as an extra. The work, along with the memories of Vietnam, kill first his spirit, then his body. Gansworth skillfully navigates between the two stories and threads them together with elan."
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Living the hard and lingering lessons of war
(The Minneapolis Star Tribune 11/20)