Monday, June 11, 2018

Book Review: 'Mad Boy' by Nick Arvin

In his initial novel ARTICLES OF WAR Colorado author Nick Arvin stepped into the echelon of writers who are able to credibly recreate the horrors of war without finding the need to justify the concept of war as a viable means for resolution of issues. An exceptional novel, the book relentlessly defined the passion, the fear, the atrocities, the visceral responses to the annihilation of fellow human beings, and places those responses squarely in the body of one terrified eighteen-year-old boy. The effect – devastating: the result - one of the most vehement antiwar novels ever written. The book placed the reader in the midst of WW II and never spared a moment of grisly detail. For this Vet from another war, this book, more than most other novels about war, captured the harsh realities of battle on the line and in the minds of those sent to fight. If ever there were an antiwar statement in the form of brilliant prose, this is it. This was a tough book to read, but an inordinately important one, and an exceedingly fine novel by a gifted poet. 

Regarding his second novel THE RECONSTRUTIONIST Nick Arvin proved he is not only a keen observer and sensitive interpreter of those moments in life and death, but that he has an uncanny ability to take those observations and weave them into a mesmerizing story. He shared at book's end three 'accidents' that awakened in him the thirst for knowing just what happens that causes accidents, are they incidental happenings, are they part of a larger plan, and how do we ever know the complete truth of an 'accident'. True, in that novel the accidents are those involving cars - or are they? The manner in which Arvin approaches all aspects of his writing makes evident that the crossing of human paths, disjointed or disturbed time frames, the attitudes and memories and physical stigmata of things that happened before - all of these are either accidental happenings or part of a greater universal conundrum, perhaps understood by no one. Nick Arvin knows his way around constructing stories and he is unafraid to share information with his reader that will heighten the experience of becoming engrossed in his involving novels. He definitely has the gift! 

Now six years later he offers another historical novel, this time stepping in to the War of 1812 and the war of racism. His elected principal character is one Henry Phipps and he introduces him thus – ‘Henry Phipps runs through the shadows under great trees. He’s angry. Someone has lied— the slave Radnor has lied to Henry, or someone has lied to Radnor: some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie. He runs through wet heat and spongy mud, through clouds of gnats and sprays of pale flowers, a small boy, lean like a figure cut from a length of wood too thin for the intended shape. He wears a shirt that’s scarcely more than sacking with buttons, trousers patched in several places and cinched by a rope belt, boots with a hole in one toe, no hat. When a bramble scratches his leg, he stops to yell at the plant and kick it. Then he runs on. Old forest still covers much of the land between the Chesapeake and the Potomac, and America has been at war with Britain for two of Henry’s ten years, mostly losing. From ahead drifts the sound of an English voice, which Henry would notice if not for the noise of his own breath, rushing blood, fury. Why would Radnor lie? Who would lie to Radnor? Henry cannot fathom. He jumped to his feet and raced away before Radnor finished explaining. Henry wants to talk to Mother; Mother will know what to do. Henry is so outraged and wrathful that he gives only contempt to the idea that what Radnor said might be true— that Henry’s brother, Franklin, is dead.’

The well-turned synopsis provides the plot outline – ‘Young Henry Phipps is on a quest to realize his dying mother’s last wish: to be buried at sea, surrounded by her family. Not an easy task considering Henry’s ne’er-do-well father is in debtor’s prison and his comically earnest older brother is busy fighting the red coats on the battlefields of Maryland. But Henry’s stubborn determination knows no bounds. As he dodges the cannon fire of clashing armies and picks among the ruins of a burning capital he meets looters, British defectors, renegade slaves, a pregnant maiden in distress, and scoundrels of all types. Mad Boy is at once an antic adventure and a thoroughly convincing work of historical fiction that recreates a young nation’s first truly international conflict and a key moment in the history of the emancipation of African-American slaves. A poignant tale of a young man burdened by an outsized undertaking.’

One would need to search for other authors of this skill to incorporate historical recreations of war – the terror and the tragedy – and yet retain the human element of family and relationships that Nick blends so masterfully. Nick Arvin is an author of significance and importance in our literary scene. Digest him slowly.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.