The year is 1966; the place is some Godforsaken air base in New Mexico. Airman Mortensen is 18.
He’s quit his first semester of college because he thought it was a crock and now, after the total folly of enlisting in the Air Force, he’s committed a second total folly of disobeying a silly order.
When we meet him, he’s a doleful Latrine King, swabbing out vast ranges of toilets, waiting for a court-martial that may never come.
Michael Blake wrote the Academy Award-winning “Dances With Wolves” and has already begun to command a vast, devoted, useful, mainstream audience.
It’s wonderful, then, that in the face of so much official propaganda about what a swell time young men have when they enlist in the military and get to form friendships that last forever and then get to go off to some country nobody ever heard of and beat the kapok out of whatever tattered army and innocent citizens they’ve got over there, Michael Blake gets to tell another story.
His novel is aimed exactly at the guys who--out of boredom or bewilderment--might be thinking of enlisting, to be “all that they can be.”
Blake creates his hero as a kind of Youthful Everyman. He’s dying of loneliness, the food verges from bad to literally poisonous, and any friendship he might have found turns out to be a fellowship of the flabby, zit-ridden and forlorn.
In Airman Mortensen’s eyes, the military is a hideous life, and the only thing he can do is wait for weekend dances at a nearby Masonic Temple, where the “teen-aged Tribe” gathers and dances, dances, dances to the great music of the middle ‘60s.
It’s 1966, remember, just before 1967’s wonderful Summer of Love. Airman Mortensen gets hints every so often of what might be coming down. He sees a visiting band come into a restaurant, with hair that drifts over their collars. (The local citizenry almost perish in a collective faint.) Something is going to be happening, soon.
The reader knows that Airman Mortensen--as he is referred to often throughout the book--is either going to end up a deserter-hippie or a fighter in Vietnam. But Mortensen knows nothing of that yet. He only knows that he’s 18, a virgin and stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Then he meets Claire, the 17-year-old daughter of Col. Brill, the company commander.
There will be those who dismiss this novel as “comic book writing,” and surely, with its simple sentences and fairly dopey situations it might fit that category. But Blake sticks to the facts, the way it was/is to be a teen-ager.
Fast, funny girls drinking their parents’ liquor, the (ah, nostalgia!) gymnastic exercise of attempting sex in the back seat of a Volkswagen Bug, the wonderfulness of dancing until you can’t dance any more, the stark terror of almost getting “caught” in the altogether by the unexpected return of a set of parents, the equally stark suffering of being rejected by a cruel lover who won’t even tell you why.
Those who know him say Michael Blake is “still a kid.” In America, when growing up means mortgages, grudges and disappointments if you’re poor, and bank scandals and government shenanigans if you’re rich, staying “a kid” is one of the best compliments of all. If you long to revisit your youth, or have your youth confirmed, read this book. And think twice before you enlist.
Next: Rick Bass reviews “Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound” by John Keeble (HarperCollins).