Two men, Tom Laidlaw, a white, and Rod Redmond, a black, return from Vietnam to a small Tennessee town near Nashville in the early 1970s. The two had grown up together and served on the same Long Range Reconnaisance Patrol team in the Army, and so they are close and intend to remain so until thugs from the local Ku Klux Klan begin making trouble for them. This is the simplified plot of Madison Smartt Bell's stark latest novel.
Of course, there's more to it than that. Laidlaw's arrival back in his hardscrabble little village is marked by an emptiness of spirit, drained both by the war and his father's recent death inside his burning farmhouse. Laidlaw begins to eke out a fragile existence, installing himself in a run-down tenant shack once occupied by Redmond's family. Aided by a kindly red-neck neighbor, he cultivates a garden, begins raising sheep and practices on the five-string banjo. All this takes such a long time that by the end of 100 or so pages I felt I had learned quite enough details about farming, animal husbandry and banjo picking. And then Redmond finally comes into the story.
Redmond came back from the war earlier than Laidlaw, went to New York, became involved in an armed robbery, returned home to get enmeshed in a housing fraud scheme fostered by a ubiquitous white real estate agent nicknamed "Goodbuddy," served some more time and is now free on parole. He gets a job in a warehouse where he's ultimately set upon by a tire-tool wielding white man and winds up in a crummy rooming house near an establishment known as Mosque Number 2, which serves as a restaurant and house of worship run by Redmond's cousin, Raschid, who has converted to Mohammedanism.
Meantime, Laidlaw has found a couple of partners to form a bluegrass band--Martin Brown, a guitarist with stage fright, and Adrienne Wells, a classical violinist turned country music fiddler, with whom Laidlaw ultimately begins a love affair. It is at one of their performances in a dingy saloon that Redmond appears and Laidlaw is so moved that he steps from the stage and embraces him. This begins the troubles with the Klan, which ultimately leads Laidlaw, Redmond, and a third member of the patrol team, a half-crazed veteran named "Ratman," on a sort of deja vu trip of violence in rural Tennessee.
There are sub-themes of "Soldier's Joy" worth exploring too. The relationship between Laidlaw and Redmond is complex. As children they played together and Redmond's father, Wat, now an ailing old man, showed favoritism toward Laidlaw at Redmond's expense, a slight that causes Redmond to resent Laidlaw. For his part, Laidlaw wants only friendship with Redmond and defies the Klan or anyone else to interfere. On the other hand, Redmond is easygoing and wants mostly to be left alone, having accepted his lot as an uneducated black in the South of the 1970s.
More friction is sparked when Laidlaw finds out that some of the nightriders who've been harassing him are the sons of the kindly old Mr. Giles, who's been helping him farm and fix up his place. The crooked Mr. Goodbuddy resurfaces as a player in a Klan scheme to mistreat a black gospel preacher called Brother Jacob, at whose revival Laidlaw's band is supposed to perform. This leads to a final confrontation in which everybody reverts to form.
"Soldier's Joy"--the title is taken from a Revolutionary War tune often played by banjo pickers--is an honorable novel. Its themes pitch the forces of good against the forces of evil, the value of friendship and the power of redemption.
A problem with this is that the author renders them in spurts, broken frequently by long and seemingly irrelevant passages that lead no place fast. Although these passages or divergences have some cumulative effect on character in the end, one still comes away with the impression of an uneven novel. The story's at its best when the action becomes fast paced, not when the writer lapses into his "descriptive" mode: giving us the weather report or gaggles of complicated interior thoughts. But Bell's writing is very good and his storytelling poignant and powerful, enough to make this book worthwhile reading.