By George H. Wolfe
Livingston Press, 2022
Reviewed by Jim Hilgartner
At its most elemental, the narrative in Aftershock, a novel by George H. Wolfe, follows Dante Gabriel Larocca, an Army veteran wounded in a tank battle late in World War II, as he navigates the new battlefield of academia under the GI Bill. But there is nothing elemental about this compelling and complex story, which in lucid and vivid prose intertwines the fortunes of a disparate collection of characters, not all of whom are veterans, but all of whom have been adversely affected by the war.
These characters include an assortment of veterans encamped at a trailer park outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama; a war widow, Laney Fooshee, who was married to Dante’s late comrade-in-arms Buddy; Evelyn Curtis, the willful daughter of Southern kleptocratic privilege who served with the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots and aspires to fly for commercial airlines; her physicist fiancé Tim Fletcher, who as the civilian liaison between General Groves and Robert Oppenheimer was instrumental in developing the atomic bomb; and Sidney Green, who directs the fellowship program through which Dante hopes to study architecture in Rome. These players (and others) are well-developed and believable; they come from worlds that are convincingly realized (conflicts and contradictions included) and have a quality of ongoing existence independent of Dante’s intrusion into them.
The prose is clear and engaging, with the kind of attention to specific detail that puts the reader on the scene, a witness to the unfolding action. This is most viscerally affecting in moments of high tension—the veterans’ wartime flashbacks, the grueling scene when Evelyn struggles to return her crippled crop duster to the airfield before the length of barbed wire she’s picked up can finish destroying the plane—but it’s in play all the time, and it contributes enormously. (Full disclosure: I studied screenwriting with Wolfe while earning my MFA, and his emphatic insistence on showing versus telling, on writing for “people whose lips move when they read,” is as relevant now as ever).
We are well into the novel when the one-handed ex-naval officer (and Medal of Honor recipient) David Cohen tells Laney, “I see the war as like a really massive earthquake that lasted for years. And then it ended. And for those of us who were trapped in it, for the rest of our lives there are these memories—the aftershocks—that send tremors through our brains and into our lives, and the lives of those around us . . . And we either deal with it or succumb to it . . . Aftershocks . . . Dante has them. You ought to hear him scream in the middle of a nightmare.”
Of course, by this point, Cohen’s observation is news to no one. Dante screams in nightmares. Cohen drinks heavily and slaves away at a rambling autobiographical novel the work on which, he tells Dante, is keeping him alive. Reddy Freddy, a former combat medic, has “already beaten up his pregnant wife, pulled a knife on a classmate, flunked out of school, and driven away. . . .” Evelyn Curtis struggles to make sense of her fiancé’s war-related mental anguish while dealing with her own grief over losses from her time in the WASPS. Karl and Ben, the tragicomic-relief “mad Marines,” are so dehumanized by what they’ve witnessed and what they’ve done that even their fellow vets can deal with them only by finding them amusing—and scary. Greene grieves waspishly over the knowledge that the GI Bill has irrevocably changed academia, and that pavement people like Larocca are not going away. Everyone, in short, is “trapped in it.”
But Cohen’s speech here brings us an operating metaphor that elucidates what Wolfe has been showing us all along: the war, with its cataclysmic and wide-reaching ferocity, has upended everything, and its tendrils of trauma reach beyond its immediate victims—the survivors, burdened by what they did and lived through and now must, for however long, live with—to the society itself: its social order, its politics, its future.
That upended social order, however, is not giving up without a fight. Witness the misogyny-infused discussions about—and eventual crushing of—Evelyn’s dreams of flying for a commercial airline. The dismissive treatment of Dante’s design for humane and inhabitable low-income housing—and its subsequent failure to gain traction with people who could have helped make it happen. And so on. There are no revisionist sh*t pies here, or heroic white males pulling down the whites-only sign above the women’s bathroom. Instead, there is a sober look at roads that suddenly opened out of cracks in prewar societal edifices—and with that, a chance to comprehend and regret our predecessors’ short-sighted intransigence in refusing to take more of them.
Lost historical opportunities aside, however, Aftershock is an engaging, entertaining, and impactful read. Wolfe has taken an inherently compelling inflection point in history and drawn from it characters—flawed, tragic, comic, villainous, heroic, and occasionally all of these—and he has woven them and their stories together into a tapestry that is sometimes exhilarating, sometimes heartbreaking, often very funny, and always human. Enjoy!
Jim Hilgartner is a poet and fiction writer. He recently retired from Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served on the English faculty from 2006. Jim received his MFA from the University of Alabama and twice received a Fellowship in Literature from the Alabama State Council on the Arts: in 2001 and again in 2011.