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The enemy within

The Post-War Dream A Novel; Mitch Cullin; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 244 pp., $24

March 16, 2008|Donna Seaman | Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host of the radio program "Open Books," on Chicago Public Radio and

Hollis ADAMS would most likely have gone to his grave without revisiting the horror of his military service in Korea if his wife, Debra, hadn't suggested that he write his autobiography. Hollis has retired, and the long-married, childless couple has left Los Angeles for a retirement community anchored to a golf course and a "Funtivities Center" outside Tucson. Hollis has surprised himself by becoming passionate about his cactus garden and his thatched tiki hut by the pool, where he likes to lounge and drink in a senior's version of a treehouse. But for all their careful plans, reserved Hollis and practical Debra are not destined to live out their golden years in a boozy trance of leisure activities.

If you haven't read any of Mitch Cullin's seven previous works of fiction, which include unnerving tales of gothic, even grotesque strangeness, you may be puzzled by this novel's almost offhanded salting of the ordinary with the inexplicable. The book begins with Hollis' eerie, sporadically recurring dream of a post-apocalyptic world. This is followed by a tally of disorienting waking visions in which he confronts his double, "an apparition of himself" who over the years looks much worse for wear than Hollis does, as though his "disquieting doppelganger" reflected the true nature of his battered soul. Cullin intimates that "the imperturbable, calm world" his protagonist creates and clings to is an antidote for war wounds far deeper than the snaking scar on Hollis' left leg, an injury that still pains him nearly 50 years after he was hit by a North Korean sniper.

Yet Hollis' disturbing dream and encounters with his mysterious double soon fade away as Cullin eschews the rampaging weirdness of his earlier books for a more covert approach to the dark and chaotic side of the human condition, represented in this psychologically acute novel by war and cancer.

Cullin's frank short stories have appeared in gay fiction anthologies, and his category-busting novels express a gothic rural sensibility and an obsession with the body's simultaneous vulnerability and resilience. "Tideland," for example, is a macabre tale about an 11-year-old named Jeliza-Rose who communes with doll heads and snuggles up to her dead daddy's body in a decrepit Texas farmhouse. This feverish, campy, creepy and wildly affecting novel was made into an equally out-there, twisted and powerful film by Terry Gilliam. In the seemingly more normal "UnderSurface," a married Tucson teacher finds himself drawn to gay sex and pulled into a vortex of disasters in the wake of a murder. In "A Slight Trick of the Mind," Cullin imagines an elderly Sherlock Holmes visiting post-bomb Hiroshima.

Here, in "Post-War," Cullin writes with inordinate empathy about a close, insular marriage rooted in a lie and put to the ultimate test. Debra's request for the story of his youth catapults Hollis back in time to his austere Midwestern life as the only child of a widow named Eden Adams -- a loaded name if ever there was one. Hollis abruptly enlists to escape his new and hostile stepfather, but once he ships overseas, he finds himself contending with another abrading, overbearing guy. While Hollis is quiet and watchful, Bill McCreedy is loud, bossy, foulmouthed and bigoted. A take-charge guy hungry for attention and unquestioning loyalty, he brags about the gal he's going to marry back home in Claude, Texas (which happens to be the setting for Cullin's first novel, "Whompyjawed"), and he infuriates Hollis with his flamboyant eccentricity and arrogance.

The story shuttles between Hollis' haunting war recollections and shockingly specific accounts of the battleground that Debra becomes as ovarian cancer wreaks havoc on her body and chemotherapy exacts its own traumatic toll. From hair loss, chills, bloating, pain, fatigue and "chemo brain" to aromatherapy, wigs, Gilda's Club (a support organization) and heroically pragmatic and self-possessed Debra's evolving view of her rapidly approaching demise, Cullin's detailed descriptions are excruciating.

Rather than seeming morbid or sensationalized, however, this unflinching precision proves deeply respectful. One senses that this intensity of knowledge and understanding is born of the author's personal experience, and, indeed, as he notes in his acknowledgments, Cullin's late mother struggled against this cruel disease. In light of that loss, Cullin's feat in writing a cancer novel positively useful in its candor is all the more remarkable.

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