I can’t remember what prompted me to pick up Salvatore Scibona’s first novel, The End, a National Book Award finalist. When I learned that he was coming to a bookstore near me on a tour for his new book, The Volunteer, I tried to remember what I could about his first novel. I found I could recall less about the content and more about the style. I had this visceral memory of holding the book and thinking that I had not read anything like it before.
Perhaps because he read much of it at the bookstore event, I found the opening strong. When it began to shift from one narrator to another, I grew wary. The stories were interwoven, but it took me some time to see this move as anything but style for style’s sake.
Gradually, as the book moved from one narrator to another and then backwards and forwards through time, I began to realize that Scibona was doing more than just showing off. This is, it is true, a story about the volunteer and his the most obvious ways he volunteers is by enlisting (and re-enlisting and re-enlisting) to fight in the Vietnam War.
But he becomes a volunteer for so much more – a post-war program that traumatizes him for life, a volunteer partner, father, grandfather, etc.. But each of these decisions prompt moments that haunt him and he can’t escape them. As he moves about the country and moves through time, I found Scibona exploring notions of identity, of home, and of the generations. What does it mean, for example, to be a parent on the birth certificate up against the willingness to volunteer to be a parent in real life?
Scibona clearly did a lot of research for this book and, too often, it shows. And the dialogue is an issue as well. Too many of the characters talk in the same cryptic and staccato way (see Mamet). His narration, when not marred by unneeded research, is lyrical and evocative. Perhaps it is the contrast that is jarring.
This is a good book, but not a great one. It is about the choices we make, some deliberately, some out of excess emotion, and some passively. And these choices, once made, cannot, despite the best efforts of any volunteer, be undone.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.