My reading goal for 2017 is to read more of what I call “quietly good” fiction. By this I mean stories that are well told but in traditional ways. I’m taking a moratorium on shifting point of view for a while and am seeking books that linger for long periods of time in the consciousness of one character, books that aren’t afraid to be subtle and introspective. Given this goal, Andre Dubus’ The Lieutenant was a great way to kick off the year. In this novel, 25-year-old Marine Lieutenant Dan Tierney (even his name is “quietly good”) temporarily takes command of the Marine detachment on board a Navy ship called the Vanguard because the commanding officer had to leave the ship for medical treatment. Right away we are bombarded both with Tierney’s basic goodness and eagerness and with his insecurities. We learn that Tierney doesn’t much like serving on a ship, which he viewed “with awe at times, but more often with scorn.” At the same time, he admires Marines who serve at sea – not quite including himself among their number, at least not yet – thinking of them as “at least six feet tall, firm-muscled and sunburned, the kind who stare at you like your manhood’s conscience from recruiting posters.” We learn that Dan is not over six feet tall himself and walks around feeling an insecure awareness of his height. We also learn about his abiding love for the Marines on the ship. Check out the bizarre passageways this sentence follows: “He was proud of them, and loyal – the pride and loyalty becoming steadily more intense, sustaining him in loneliness and the frustration of sea duty spent largely below decks, among seemingly labyrinthine passageways where strange levers and pipes and switches confronted him daily with his own alienation – and once in a bar at Yokosuka a plump ensign had sung the ‘Marines’ Hymn’ to the tune of ‘Clementine’ and Dan had knocked him off his bar stool.” And the reader thinks, Wait! How did we get to Yokosuka? Weren’t we just on a ship – labyrinthine passageways and such? And then there’s that internal mental moment when you figure out if it’s possible to sing the ‘Marines’ Hymn’ to the tune of ‘Clementine’ (it is), and then how did we get to Japan again? Weren’t we just on a ship? That’s what it’s like to follow Dan Tierney around through this novel. He does his job in a thoughtful and responsible way (though not without mistakes), but his mind is never far away from his masculinity and his honor and his secret fears that he may not in fact have as much of these qualities as he wishes he had.
Unfortunately, the paragraph above is all the close reading you’re going to get about this novel. As you’ve perhaps noticed, Postcards from Purgatory has been a little on the inactive side lately, and I read this book back in January. It’s a great read, and I recommend it, but I am going to have trouble writing an especially detailed review. But here, in no particular order, are some memories and impressions:
First, I read this book on tenterhooks, because when I was a school administrator I had an experience not entirely different from Tierney’s experience in this novel, which is to say that the rest of the administration went to a conference and left only the CFO and me behind to hold down the fort. And yes, as you might expect, everything went to shit. And I too was basically good and basically decent but also had any number of things to prove, just like Tierney, and just like Tierney I made mistakes. Not the same mistakes he makes, but the parallels are clear enough that I read this book with a great deal of anxiety and empathy for Tierney.
Here are the basics of the plot: on his first day in command, Tierney receives a report of an insubordination incident: a PFC refused to follow an order from a corporal. Tierney checks regulations and learns that he can use his discretion and choose one of several punishments, the most severe of which is three days in the brig on bread and water (yes, in the 20th century. This novel is set in the late 1950’s). Tierney decides that he doesn’t want to come across as indecisive or as a pushover (my inner voice was doing one of those slow-motion Noooooo’s here – I followed this part of the plot kicking and screaming), so he chooses the most severe punishment (horrible idea) and sends the offending Marine – Freeman, whom Tierney likes – to the brig on bread and water.
Tierney’s decision is this novel’s original sin. The rest of the plot flows out from this moment and gets tangled up and horrible. First, the commander of the ship (a Naval officer who outranks both Tierney and the Marine officer who usually commands the detachment) reprimands Tierney for choosing such a harsh punishment, putting Tierney on the defensive. Second, Tierney calls Freeman into his office and gives him a speech that is supposed to be avuncular and reassuring, reminding Freeman that he will have a clean slate when his punishment is over. This is not an inappropriate thing to tell Freeman, but Tierney handles it in an awkward way and Freeman is left confused.
It seems that when a Marine is in the brig on a Navy vessel, the commanding officer of the Marine detachment is required to read and, if needed, censor his incoming and outgoing mail. While carrying out this duty. Tierney learns that Freeman’s girlfriend is pregnant and that Freeman won’t be home from his deployment in time to be there for the birth. This information complicates things in a couple of ways. First, Tierney – whose insecurity about his manhood is always just under the surface – is envious of Freeman. Tierney believes himself to have a girlfriend, but she has not been answering his letters of late, and as the novel proceeds, including some flashbacks to the last time Tierney saw his girlfriend, it becomes clear to the reader that his girlfriend has moved on. Tierney is impressed and envious that Freeman has managed to impregnate his girlfriend, but since he is a decent guy, he doesn’t act on his envy in any kind of explicit way. At the same time, though, he can’t stop thinking about it: what does Freeman have that he does not? Eventually he decides that he should pull strings to get Freeman sent home in time for the baby’s birth. This is no small proposition, involving significant logistics, and it gives the impression that Tierney is showing favoritism toward Freeman. As all of this is going on, Tierney never loses his focus on himself and how he is perceived by others: “Dan sat in the office… having crossed the classroom where several troops were shining shoes, having felt so completely in control of the detachment and himself that he had been unaware of these troops and – for once – had not bothered to fix on his face the public expression of an officer: a look of serene confidence, as if he had transcended all the problems of the enlisted world and was now preoccupied with the logistics of an amphibious landing on the shores of China. He had merely crossed the room, watched by the troops, thinking of Freeman and Jan starting a baby on a sunny afternoon in Oakland, and as he recrossed the room to enter his office, he was smiling warmly to himself.”
Tierney can be tedious in this way. This is not the only self-referential room-crossing scene in the novel, and wait until you read the parts where he congratulates himself for having to shave more often than Freeman does. But these passages don’t bog down the novel because they are so real. Dubus does a fantastic job of rendering the pride, insecurity, and fear of a young man left in charge of something important. It’s interesting to me that Tierney is twenty-five: just the age at which the “missing part of the adolescent brain” stops being missing – supposedly anyway. Tierney knows everything he should do and has excellent intentions, but his actions are always awkward and often misinterpreted, and he thinks and rethinks every last decision he makes – often choosing the wrong course of action as a result. For me, this quality makes him a very sympathetic character. He never, ever relaxes – and neither did I when I was reading this book.
It may seem as if I’m giving away a lot of the plot, but trust me, there’s more. Dubus extends each of these relatively ordinary situations to the farthest extent of its consequences, and – I’ll just share one more plot point – soon we learn that there was more to the insubordination incident than Tierney knew. The corporal to whom Freeman was rude is one of three Marines who had been hazing Freeman severely for several months. Much of the novel is taken up with Tierney’s investigation of this incident, and I found the investigation compelling (and also nerve-wracking, because like I said, I’ve been there).
Penis size is involved – not just figuratively but literally. And with that I leave you.