Kowalski, William: The Hundred Hearts

Cover Scan Courtesy of Thomas Allen & Son

Cover Scan Courtesy of Thomas Allen & Son

Kowalski, William
The Hundred Hearts
Thomas Allen, 2013
Softcover, 292 pages

Review by: Kerry Riley

If it is true, and I think it is, that literature often serves as a sounding board for the collective psychic preoccupations of a particular time and place, then it is perhaps not surprising, in our post millennial financial implosion world, that the American Dream is receiving some pointed literary scrutiny these days. If it is also true that one sees one’s culture most clearly from a distance, then it seems doubly fitting that transplanted American (now Canadian)  William Kowalski, should be the author of The Hundred Hearts, a novel that explores with clear-sighted empathy, exceptional dialogue and characterization, honesty, and, counterintuitively, much wry humour, the intricate relationship that exists between that dream, and the soldiers deployed in its defense.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1970, Kowlaski grew up in Pennsylvania, but now lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, having moved there  from Toronto, with his family,  in 2002.  He is the author of four previous novels, The Good Neighbour (2005), The Adventures of Flash Jackson (2003), Somewhere South of Here (2002) and Eddie’s Bastard (2000).

One tends, upon superficial acquaintance, to be underwhelmed by Jeremy Merkin, Kowalski’s protagonist in The Hundred Hearts, an apparent do-nothing, going nowhere, living in the grandparents’ basement, pot-using, pee-in-the-sink, kind of guy.  But only  until one gets to know him. Readers first meet Jeremy in his twenty-fifth year, almost five years after he was injured in the Afghan war, and a month after the death of his grandmother Helen, the gravitational core of the Merkin family.  He lives in Elysium, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, in his grandfather Al’s basement, also sharing the house with his mother Rita, and developmentally disabled cousin Henry.  His father, Wilkins, has spent the last twenty years as a permanent resident in a mental hospital, a situation most likely precipitated by an over-enthusiastic use of psychedelic drugs in his younger days.  The Merkin family, already under considerable strain, begins to unravel with the loss of Helen, its emotional anchor.

Both Jeremy and his grandfather Al, are war veterans with dark secrets to guard, and who have, each in his own way, struggled with reintegration into his community and his country.  Although now apparently recovered, Al suffered for many years after his return from the Vietnam War, from depression and alcoholism. The collateral damage was, for the family, significant and the tracing of its ongoing effects is one of the major preoccupations of the story. Politically incorrect in a way that makes one sympathize with political correctness, Al, smug, sarcastic, stubborn, domineering, angry and arrogant, seems irredeemable as a character. Yet, as Helen explained to the family, when they questioned her protective tolerance of him,

He wasn’t always like that.  Before he went away, he was a lot of fun. The Al I married went away to Vietnam and never came back.

The story begins on what seems to be an optimistic note for Jeremy, as he begins his new career as a high school physics teacher in Elysium, after five years of struggle to recover from physical and emotional injuries incurred in an IED bomb blast while on duty in Afghanistan. He returned from service with spinal cord damage which left him with chronic pain alleviated only by the use of medical marijuana, significant memory issues, and a raging case of PTSD.  The sense of optimism, however, is quickly challenged as Jeremy’s essential honesty leaves him open to manipulation, and he is entangled in a career-threatening situation involving an unstable female student, her possibly crazy Gulf War veteran father, and potentially bad cop stepbrother.  Although initially masked by his aversion to complaining, the reader also gradually becomes aware of the extent of Jeremy’s disabilities,  and to appreciate the heroism involved, for him, in everyday living.

The narrative follows the newly bereaved family’s trajectory as they struggle to adjust to the loss of Helen, to find a workable new configuration, and to deal with a crisis involving Henry and his absentee mother Jeanie.  Along the way, one is invited to examine the ancient and profound contract between soldier and country. This contract, already complex, is exponentially complicated when the national ideology, the American Dream, has, itself, come increasingly into question.

Kowalski stakes out his philosophical territory early, in the book’s two epigraphs. The first is a beautiful passage from Homer’s Odyssey, describing Elysium, the perfect world where Greek heroes ( in this case, Menelaus, a principal in the Trojan war) enjoy the afterlife:

As for your own end, Menelaus, you shall not die
in Argos, but the Immortals will take you to the
Elysian plain, which is at the ends of the world.
There fair-haired Rhadamanthus reigns, and men
lead an easier life than anywhere else in the world,
for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow,
but Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings
softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men.

So, there it is, the implicit contract a nation makes with its heroes: defend our way of life, and you shall be rewarded with paradise. On its own, it might suggest a fairly straightforward tale of military heroics, were it not for the second epigraph, offered in counterpoint, from the late George Carlin, that persistent mosquito-whine in the ears of American dreamers:

They call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Indeed, both Al and his grandson Jeremy find themselves in Elysium after their tours of duty, but it is hardly paradise.  In fact, their Elysium is the moribund result of a real estate development fraud, perpetrated upon hapless home buyers by a Greek entrepreneur who sold hope and potential on the edge of the Mojave Desert, and when this failed to materialize in the form of further development and increasing land values, scampered off with his millions to an Aegean isle, leaving Elysians with their isolation, stagnant property values and sidewalks which led nowhere.

Kowlaski lavishes significant descriptive power on the depictions of this particular version of Elysium as a decaying parody of heaven.  It sits, he says, on

a vast plain of rusty dirt, home to foul-smelling creosote bushes and Joshua trees upthrust like gladiators’ fists

and is

…a town that looks as if it was laid out for a community of ghosts, partly real but mostly imaginary.  American flags snap in the mad rush of the Santa Ana winds, reminiscent of the whips of teamsters who once drove the borax mule trains down from the hills.  Two or three times a day, the ground is slapped by sonic booms from nearby Edwards Air Force Base.  Occasionally, a dark shape snakes beneath the sun, casting a deltoid shadow.  It’s the stealth bomber, emitting a quiet roar…

At the centre of the town sits its showpiece, an artificial lake, installed by Ouranakis, the original developer,

and which has since festered like an open sewer, riddled with stinking, nearly sentient algal life forms roughly the size and shape of sea serpents, and which is supplemented on a weekly basis by the volunteer fire department with yet more water stolen from the Indians of Mexico (….) A fountain blares greenish liquid skyward, spreading droplets of water with the texture of pudding and probably scattering heinous microscopic life forms into the Elysian air.

Clearly, there’s something rotten in Elysium.

One can’t help but draw parallels to the recent collapse of the American mortgage market, subsequent financial meltdown,  and the particularly unsavoury way in which the American financial sector played the American dreamers for fools.  Specific mention is made, in fact, to the Lehman Brothers debacle — Al has lost his life savings in the crash, a situation which forces him to conceive of more creative ways to protect his family’s security. Jeremy is also left to wonder just what it was that he risked his life, and lost his health, to defend. A sense of malevolent power, thwarted dreams, ethical confusion, and things gone awry, of extremity, and fraudulence pervade the pages of The Hundred Hearts, no doubt channeling undercurrents of the present American zeitgeist.

Part observational comic, part philosopher king, Kowalski channels this most elemental of discussions through the lives of memorable, and memorably funny characters.  With a keen eye for the tellingly hilarious detail, near pitch-perfect dialogue, and deft use of Jeremy’s ironic voice, Kowalski leads one far deeper into America’s heart of darkness than one might  otherwise be willing to go.  One brilliantly rendered scene in which Al creates a video for an internet buy and sell ad, as he conceives it to be, is a minor tragicomic masterpiece.

Although Kowalski presents his characters warts and all (and some, like Al, are very warty indeed) it is clear that he loves them.  As described earlier, Jeremy initially seems an easy target, a walking collection of qualities and habits that would automatically disqualify him as a protagonist in the American dream. Yet, Jeremy reveals himself to be uncomplaining, optimistic and thoughtful, despite significant difficulties, and, as Al reluctantly concedes,

even though he couldn’t be relied upon to take out the goddamn garbage, in the end you knew that Jeremy was going to do the right thing.

However, in doing so, he finds himself, often, at odds with his country and his community. Even Al, whose running commentary on life around him would make All In The Family’s Archie Bunker seem like a left-wing radical, is given an internal code of honour, and is, ultimately, motivated by his family’s best interests, as he understands them.

By his own admission, a bit of a shallow thinker, Jeremy joined the army without much  awareness.  Since his return from Afghanistan, however, he’s been giving the subject of war quite a bit of thought. All this cerebral effort has led to a reckoning of sorts, and a very big question.  He enlisted with same sense of heroic, freedom-fighting adventure as fuels young boys’ war games, but his post-war experience has led him to gradually understand the darker contract that exists between a soldier and his country, and he concludes that the role of the army was:

not to fight for freedom, whatever that nonsense meant, but to see the unseeable, do the undoable, and later, try to forget the unforgettable. And to somehow try to fit back into a society that had no clue.

As mentioned earlier, his Elysium leaves a lot to be desired, and citizens of the culture whose (now questionable) ideals he was supposedly defending are wary of his presence back amongst them, preferring cluelessness, not anxious to know what has been required to maintain their dreams, or at what personal cost to the soldiers, and sending him decidedly mixed signals. Prodded to boast of his kills, he (and his father before him) are also set apart as monsters of sorts, for having killed. When Jeanie,  Al’s daughter, expresses her fear that Al might kill the unidentified father of her son, Henry, if she names him, Rita, the older daughter, defends Jeanie’s thinking. “It’s not like you haven’t done it before,” she reminds him.  Mild-mannered Jeremy, is singled out by Jenn, a confused student, as someone she might ask to kill her step-brother. “(…) you were in the war, right? You’ve killed people before (….) It would be easy for you.” she reasons.   It is left to Al to name the hypocrisy, as he explains,

Either all of them were criminals or none of them were.  You didn’t train guys to kill and then accuse them of murder. You just let them kill. Nothing else made sense.

Jeremy has slowly come to understand that whether or not he survived his tour of duty, he (like his father before him) is never coming home, and that his country has been complicit in his sacrifice.

Jeremy’s gradual awakening leads him to a larger question, one that the eternal and elemental Mojave may have ignited in his mind, and that has troubled mankind for millennia:

All these people, billions of them. All the people who’ve ever lived. Most of us, you know, we’re just going to die without ever doing anything that important and no one will ever even remember that we were here. No one. And I guess what I wonder is why no one ever stops to think about that kind of stuff before they do something. Even something big, like building a skyscraper or starting a new country or something. Or starting a war. Or even fighting in one (….) You go into it thinking there’s some big reason behind it, but there isn’t. It’s just the same damn thing over and over again. So many people get hurt and die, but eventually, so much time passes even their suffering doesn’t matter anymore. It’s like they never existed.

In what is no doubt a deliberate comment on the current American situation, it is Wilkins, Jeremy’s institutionalized father, who sounds a lonely note of optimism, advising his son to be patient with humanity:

I know that humanity relies on a few people to help move them forward. A few special people (…) who ask the right questions. For every person who has a great idea, there are millions more who will scream that you are ruining everything, you’re crazy, you’re making things worse. So we kind of march in place, until finally a change takes hold and suddenly we’ve  moved an inch forward(….) all I can tell you is we are moving forward, little by little.

The overall effect of The Hundred Hearts, is both haunting and hopeful.  The reader will be haunted by Jeremy’s gentleness and his crimes, his efforts to do right and his lack of reward.  There is hope, however, as Wilkins notes, when one begins to ask the right questions.

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