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Tom Chaney: The Man Standing Next To Us

Of Writers And Their Books: The Man Standing Next To Us. Tom reviews Christopher Rice's novel about the relationship between two Marines who don't fight for a cause, "We fight for the man standing next to us." This column first appeared 3 August 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Slow Years of Wasteful War

By Tom Chaney

The Man Standing Next To Us

What a pleasure it is to watch a beginning novelist search for and find a viable voice. Puts me in mind of a young colt I saw the other day out at Cub Run. Not more than a few days old, he knew just what he was after and was already pretty certain about how to get it. Once in a while his legs got in the way, but I could tell he would soon find his stride.

Christopher Rice hit the ground confidently with his first novel, A Density of Souls, set in the New Orleans of his youth.

Of it he said, "[It] is as close to a gay book as you can get. It revolves around a character's homosexuality and others are described in terms of their reaction to the one character's sexuality. In that sense it is at the core of the book."

In the next couple of books he broadened his approach -- The Snow Garden basically deals with identity. "I am trying," he said in 2002, "to shrug off the term 'gay' author."

No more wobbly legs. With his fourth novel Blind Fall Christopher Rice has found a voice as surely as his famous mother, Anne Rice.

Marine John Houck set out to be heroic in Iraq. Chosen for a Force Recon Company he is best friends with his captain, Mike Bowers.

John receives word of the suicide of his brother back home -- a brother for whose death John blames himself. He fails to tell Bowers of the news which has made him less than fit for a sensitive assault.

Indeed, as the attack begins Hauck hallucinates that the Iraqi boy who runs to signal the assault on Bowers company is his dead brother Dean. He is surprised when explosives hidden in a dead dog erupt in the street, and realizes the Iraqi boy is a part of the plot. Hauck is saved by Bowers who, spreading himself over John to protect him from the blast, is severely injured in the process. Marines, Bowers has taught Hauck, don't fight for a cause, "We fight for the man standing next to us."

Hauck goes with Bowers to the medical center and sees him off on the plane that will take him to Germany and hospital. From his stretcher, Bowers favors his friend with a large thumbs up.

Hauck has no time to apologize to Bowers and explain his distraction.

Nine months later John Hauck is back in Southern California, living in a trailer park, studying for the test to admit him to the California Highway Patrol. He is also searching for Bowers.

Bowers is living in a remote mountain town. John finds the address and sets off for a visit, bearing an antique sword as a gift.

When he arrives at Bowers' house late at night, Houck finds the door wide open and discovers his friend's badly mutilated body sprawled across his bed. At that moment Alex Martin runs from the house. Thinking he is the murderer, Houck runs him down and brings him back to the house.

They arrive to find the body gone.

Houck discovers that Alex is not the murderer rather he is Bowers' lover. Houck, a genuinely homophobic former marine, is devastated by the discovery that his pal Bowers was gay and that he didn't know.

A part of Rice's theme in Blind Fall is how the policy of "Don't ask, don't tell" has failed the marines generally and the friendship of men such as Houck and Bowers specifically.

John Houck and Alex Martin join forces to unravel the mystery of the murder of Bowers and the disappearance of his body.

Rice calls himself a writer of "thrillers" so further discussion of the plot is unworthy of me -- except to hint that the involvement of the local law is most interesting.

The basic tension in the novel is "between Alex Martin, rejected by his family for his homosexuality, and John Houck, the uptight Marine who is homophobic through and through." So suggests one reviewer of the novel.

Christopher Rice has come quickly in his career to a universality in his creation of character. His gay characters are not limited by their sexuality. It is the same process of transformation that must occur when a regional writer retains, but is not limited by, his region; or when a black writer similarly retains and uses his blackness but is not restricted thereby.

This is the first book by Rice told through a single character. Often, he notes, the voice of character is lost in action. It is best when plot arises out of character. Rice observes that the work of Ross MacDonald most nearly embodies what he is attempting to do with his own crime fiction -- using character to lead to a dramatic treatment of social issues. He has chosen a worthy mentor.

One reviewer has well observed "Blind Fall is a tale of the moral choices human beings make, of the personal redemption that can come when one man reaches out to pull someone else back from the abyss."

Join me in keeping an eye on this developing writer. He is nigh ready for the derby.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-08-04 00:40:39
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