Growing up in a working-class neighborhood populated with union men who drank Busch beer and used curse words like Shakespeare uses “thou,” I knew more military vets than most middle class Jewish girls past the age when fathers served as a matter of fact. And yet, they made little impression on me, most likely because they never spoke of their service and because the rest of my upbringing was decidedly anti-military and anti-war. (Unless it was for Israel, but that’s another story.) My teens and twenties were full of protests and anti-military rants that met with appreciation in Chicago, Brooklyn and Eugene, OR. Because I could never fit into military life with my recalcitrant and peaceful leanings, I could not understand why others could.
Which is where Levi, the protagonist of Dana Reinhardt’s new novel The Things A Brother Knows (September 2010) finds himself when his Golden Boy older brother, Boaz forgoes a bright college career to become a Marine. Sons of an Israeli immigrant who served in that military, Boaz and Levi have grown up in upper middle class American culture which sees military service as a choice for those with no other choices. Certainly not for sports heroes with the grades to attend Columbia. And especially not Jews from greater Boston, though their father might have grown up on a kibbutz. Levi, his family members, and Boaz’s gorgeous girlfriend all still grapple to understand Boaz’s choice. Now Boaz is returning home, with a hero’s welcome. Boaz returns understandably changed and mysterious to his family who are so thrilled to have him home they ignore that he walks everywhere and refuses to leave his room. Except Levi who is determined to unravel the mystery of his brother’s self-imposed confinement and then eventual leaving again.
Stories like this need to be told. Veterans are struggling to receive basic services such as mental health help, living wages to support their families and other resources promised to them when they signed their lives away, usually at ages at which reasoning and logic skills are still developing. Post-traumatic stress plagues current and past war vets and yet Congress fights over whether or not to fund treatment for it because of potential fraud. Boaz represents a real and pressing problem in our society, a society which rushed to fund war at a cost of billions but refuses to provide treatment for the effects of said war at the cost of lives.
And yet Reinhardt’s novel fails on many levels. The characters tend to fall flat despite attempts to make them real. They feel more like whimsical creations (ooh, let’s make the adopted Chinese girl Jewish and quirky and she goes to Catholic school , how novel!) than real people. In fact, Reinhardt seems to borrow heavily from John Green’s oeuvre in creating nerdy, sensitive boys, the cool girls they love, and their eccentric best friends in this book. The characters are hard to connect with, though you want to care about their troubles and struggles. We are too distracted by what makes them different to connect with what makes them like us.
The first half of the book is slow and weighed down by weak character development. While the pacing does match up with Levi’s struggle to find his way out of the dark, created by Boaz’s return home, it makes for sluggish reading. That said, once Levi leaves the confines of the quirky life the author created for him and follows his brother on a journey to who-knows-where, the pacing and story pick up. We start to get to know Boaz and his experiences more, which is really the draw in this book and the reason to keep reading. A John Green-esque love interest is thrown in, but she’s delightfully harmless enough if totally unrealistic (she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and therefore a bit of an enjoyable diversion.
The novel ends at a rally Washington, DC that may or may not be pro-peace or pro-war, depending on your viewpoint. Levi begins to understand why his brother could not return home the same boy he left. And readers might feel compelled to research more about returning veterans, their needs and the current inadequate means of meeting them. But I hope a better book, more fleshed out and less focused on details that come off as distracting rather than charming, will focus the spotlight on those returning home.