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The theater of war

Day A Novel; A.L. Kennedy; Alfred A. Knopf: 280 pp., $24

January 27, 2008|Thomas McGonigle | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

Years from now, when Scotland achieves independence from the British, just imagine: There will appear on a celebratory dais a number of doddering survivors from that group of writers who put Scotland on the international literary map: Alasdair Gray, Jeff Torrington, Agnes Owens, James Kelman, Janice Galloway and A.L. Kennedy. (We know this from the pertinent examples of Ireland and Estonia: genuine independence always proceeds from a startling reappearance of a long-suppressed cultural identity.) These diverse Scottish writers share a fierce commitment to using the English language to forge a definitive Scottish identity in telling stories about people long marginalized and giving them a vivid, innovative presence on the international stage.

Kennedy is a prolific writer whose works include the well-received "Everything You Need" and "Paradise" -- as well as a short, intensely disturbing book about bullfighting and a modest book on film, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp." In her fiction, Kennedy gives voice to people from the edges of society, and though her novels sometimes resemble baggy monsters -- though always rewarding to read -- it is in her short stories that her talent for illuminating concision is most evident. In the story "Awaiting an Adverse Reaction," she condenses the entire history of a marriage and its inevitable breakup into four pages -- all hinging upon the polio vaccine that the female character takes before going abroad on holiday.

"Day," which has just won one of the United Kingdom's most important awards, the Costa prize, concerns itself with Alfred Day, a British airman who, five years after the end of World War II, has returned to Germany where he had been a prisoner of war and participates as an extra in a movie about that experience. Having served as a ball turret gunner on a bomber flying over Germany, Alfie now lives quietly as a book clerk. Most readers will catch an allusion to Randall Jarrell's poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," probably the best known poem to come out of a world war:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Knowing this poem adds to our understanding of what Alfie experienced, though Kennedy's writing about the war seems the result of seeing too many Royal Air Force melodramas with their repertoire of stock figures. Where the novel is interesting, however, is in the attention she gives to what it feels like to survive, to be an ordinary survivor. She hints at this idea in her book on bullfighting -- which, after all, is war writ short -- where she describes the spectacle of the bullfight: "It is a strange thing to watch: an elaborately prepared transgression, a sacrifice and a sin, ugly and peculiarly moving."

Kennedy is particularly good at describing what is missing from Alfie's life. The narrative includes the obligatory something-to-do-with-a-girl -- and also the "somethings" that happened in the bomber and the prison camp. But the novel also follows Day around the set, causing him to reflect back on all that he experienced:

"The film camp hadn't been as he'd expected. At first it was only gentle and he'd thought he was fine about it, more contented than he had been in years. It has seemed not unlikely that he could work out his own little pantomime inside the professional pretense and tunnel right through to the place where he'd lost himself, or rather the dark, numb gap he could tell was asleep inside himself. Something else had been there once, but he couldn't think what. . . . [I]t could possibly make sense that he's turned up here and can at least work out what was missing -- maybe even put it back."

Kennedy introduces another fascinating extra, Vasyl, a Ukrainian who has come from another sort of camp to work on the set: "Displaced Persons, we have no choice until they decide what to do with us, we must stay where they keep us. Work is a way to leave. . . . This making a film is a thing to do which is not a concert party, or recital with poetry or digging a field or debate concerning democracy and the future -- in preparing tomorrow's peace, English influence will never be devoted to a policy of enslavement. I have heard this enough times to remember. Always lectures. Always the same. . . . "

There is never any hint of a knowing irony in this book, though one wishes Kennedy had written fewer words on the often relentless ordinariness of life. "Day" sometimes seems idle and without the necessary thought behind its concept -- something one finds more abundantly in her other work. As a reader, I wanted to spend more time with Vasyl's character than with Day's. But maybe that is always the case. In very good B movies, we always seem to notice and appreciate the little things more.

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