When communication breaks down between a father and son, the resulting pain can last a lifetime. Author Frank Nappi movingly explores how the trauma of a father's wartime service destroys the relationship he has with his son. The secret that haunts James McCleary is revealed in the book's final pages, but its repercussions on his son, John, resound throughout the novel. James' inability to move forward and make peace with his past, prevents him from forming any type of paternal bond with John. It's a sad commentary on how a father's one tragic mistake can reverberate through time to damage the psyche of his son.
The main emphasis of the novel focuses on James' tour of duty in Europe during World War II. Digging trenches to stave off the brutal cold. Timing a run across a bridge to avoid German mortars. Imagining full course dinners while surviving on a soldier's rations. The details of the day to day existence of a soldier are given a realistic voice. Nappi's interviews with actual veterans infuses his writing thanks to the Veterans Speaker Program at Oceanside High School where he works as an English teacher. These firsthand, eyewitness accounts bring the men of James' battalion to life in a way that lends authenticity and credibility to a fictional work.
For the most part, each chapter begins with John in the present day as he uncovers his father's Army mementos while cleaning out the attic of the family home. He discovers letters written by his father to his mother while overseas. John does not recognize the romantic, optimistic young man whose vibrancy shines through in his correspondence to his sweetheart back in Rockaway Beach, New York. He is not the sullen, hostile father who sits moping in the living room below. The discord between who James McCleary was and the father he knows shatters John's own sense of identity.
It is clear that James is to blame for his transgressions against his son regardless of the emotional battle scars he refuses to relinquish. The constant belittlement of John is hard to witness in the flashback sequences. James is a broken man trying to build himself up by tearing his son down. It is no wonder that John harbors little affection for a father figure who continually takes his harbored misery out on him. In essence, John became nothing more than his father's emotional punching bag. And regardless of his inner demons, James chooses the easy way out by bullying his son, instead of finding the strength to find help for his emotional turmoil.
The one character that creates a feeling of ambivalence is Madeleine, a.k.a. Mrs. McCleary. Her resistance to take a stand against James' verbal abuse is troubling. Throughout their marriage, she lets her husband walk all over their son. It is behavior that is hard to ignore, or forgive. She is not a mean-spirited persona, but her unwillingness to curb her husband's negativity results in John's lack of self-esteem and the problems he encounters down the road - drunkenness, running away from home, a broken marriage, etc. By refusing to address James' prolonged mistreatment of their son, she sets John up for an emotional meltdown of his own.
This psychological drama gives a necessary, yet disturbing, look at what makes up the shared consciousness of the Baby Boomer generation. It presents a searing portrayal of what most never talked about before, but Nappi shines a light on the cracks that exist in the perfect, all-American family. What lies under the surface is often more profound, and utterly heartbreaking. Literary works like Nappi's can finally allow the healing to begin.