“WHY did he die and why didn’t we? Why didn’t I?” These are a few of the questions that novelist and screenwriter (“The Weather Tomorrow,” the television series “China Beach” and “The West Wing”) finds himself asking 30 years after his first cousin Doug dies in Vietnam at age 22.
Young searches his own memories and those of his relatives, staunch New Englanders and experts in the art of “clamping down on information and emotions.” Rummaging, he finds men, boys, wars, alcohol and moments of violence: a father forcing his son to play tennis, a son charging his father with gardening shears, an aging man destroying himself with alcohol.
He sees the world through that New England lens, with “white out of Melville.” Summers on Cape Cod Bay were spent sailing with Doug and playing tennis with 22 cousins: the children of Bill (Young’s father), George (Doug’s father) and 10 other aunts and uncles. In the background, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station rises, golf courses gobble up cranberry bogs, boys left to run wild in the summer turn “as dark and salted as roasted almonds.”
Just as one war begins to fade into stories, another demands to be fed. There was not yet “a man to know,” Young says of his cousin, visiting for a weekend in Los Angeles before going off to Vietnam, promising to write if he finds out “anything I didn’t know.” Every family should be blessed by a historian as compassionate and wise as John Sacret Young.