The Hundred Hearts, by William Kowalski (book review)

Book review originally published in the Winnipeg Review, 3 June 2013.

The Hundred Hearts by William Kowalski (Thomas Allen, 2013)

The-Hundred-Hearts-cover“When he was younger, he loved to read about older wars, back in the days when being a soldier meant glory and honour and clutching your shoulder as you fell, grimacing, on the playground, urging your buddies to go on without you to the base under the jungle gym while you bravely held off the enemy as they advanced from the swings… But their games had nothing to do with the real thing, because in games you were devoid of fear. You couldn’t practice being afraid; and once you became afraid enough, you could never shake it. It sank into your bones, and there it stayed.”

There is an absence of true politics in William Kowalski’s The Hundred Hearts. There are only damaged individuals, most dealing in one way or another with the results of that nadir of political decisions, war. Al Merkin, the grand-patriarch, had returned from Vietnam a changed man, likely because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Grandson Jeremy was wounded physically and mentally during a tour in Afghanistan and only functions through copious amounts of marijuana tea.

Rita, Al’s daughter and Jeremy’s mother, was Al’s target much of her life. And Helen, Al’s wife, has just escaped this dysfunctional existence through death. Without the stabilizing rudder of Helen, the remaining Merkins are beginning to flail as they share space in the family house in Elysium, California, a city

populated by serious, sunburned people who are accustomed to feeling as insignificant as insects in the howling wasteland. It’s so hot that one’s bones go rubbery and tend to bend in the wrong places. To compensate, people develop a stiffness to them, an unwillingness to yield. Jesus is king. The government is out to get you. The right to bear arms is sacred.

America, to Kowalski and his characters, “has always been a big, weird place.” It is not a happy place by any stretch. It is, however, strangely funny, even if it is out to get you.

The ongoing Afghanistan war has proved a fertile ground for serious literary fiction, but not so much from the point of view of soldiers after combat. Perhaps that is because the scars are still evident and new, and the reality has not yet firmly entrenched itself in the literary psyche. Whatever the reason, Kowalski’s novel is an exceptional step in the right direction.

For the most part, the author centers a purposely-meandering narrative on Jeremy and Al, alternating the world through the prisms of their emotional wounds. Jeremy has not yet had time to come to grips with his injuries; to him the world is oppressive, a world of surprise panic attacks, crippling headaches, and people he can no longer interact effectively with. Joining the army was meant to make a man out of him: instead, it has scorched his personality and left him alone, without even the support of his comrades-in-arms.

It had been drummed into him from the first day he had been issued a weapon that the worst thing he could do was lose it, and it strikes him once again as patently unfair that the army never taught him how to let go of his gun, emotionally speaking, once they took it back…They should have been allowed a grieving period for their lost arms. Once, in the hospital in Germany, he’d asked if they could give him one—not a loaded one, maybe just a training dummy—so he could clutch its familiar outlines and at least have the illusion that he would be able to defend himself when the hajjis came pouring in the window… Nobody needed the love of a gun more than a wounded man who lay helpless in bed.

By contrast, Al’s damage has festered for decades, lending his narrative a racist fear-mongering slant that disgusts even as it allows us empathy for his ruined mental state. Beneath the rage and abuse, Al is a man terrified of the past and determined to ensure he is never hurt again, a stance that necessarily demands a defensive mindset. “He was only trying to be proper. No one ever understood anything he did. You try to do the right thing and everyone assumes you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Alongside intimate interludes with Henry, Jeremy’s mentally-challenged cousin, and Jenn, a teenager with acute issues of her own, it would seem no one in Kowalski’s view is undamaged in one way or another. Which is as it should be, both from a literary standpoint (balanced people are incredibly boring) and a factual one. It may be, Kowalski suggests, that being unbalanced is the correct response to an unbalanced world. Chaos lends itself to chaos; is it any wonder that the sanest person in The Hundred Hearts is a patient in a mental institution? Luckily for us, Kowalski proves himself a maestro at characterization and dialogue, a talent that comes in handy when his characters are performing questionable deeds.

The Hundred Hearts is not a perfect novel; the plot meanders a little too much for its own good, some of the resolutions seen a trifle too pat, the symbolism too on the nose. It wears its heart on its sleeve. But it is an important novel, and even better, a novel with a black wit that triggers laughter even as it curdles your insides.