There’s an inherent need to stitch together a war veteran’s memory because narratives made of memories are otherwise fragmented. This is the tragedy of a war story—that the wholeness will never find resolution. Unfortunately for many veterans, these qualities follow them home and gain tight purchase.
Such a POW is nineteen-year-old Teddy Dickerson, a soldier in the Korean War, and the main character of Matthew Salesses’s novella The Last Repatriate. At the start, Teddy is devastated by the abandonment of his fianceé, Beth, who sends a Dear John letter shortly before he’s captured and held prisoner in North Korea. Teddy is kept as one of twenty-three other soldiers, from 1950 to 1953. He’s threatened at gunpoint, beaten, tortured. He sees a man who “dipped his face into a bag he’d been ordered to haul, hungry enough to eat anything. Later, he fell back screaming and holding his stomach. A guard passed the bag on. Inside was a chewed block of TNT.” When the war ends, Teddy’s debriefed by two Army investigators, suspicious of Communist sympathies. Anxious upon return from Asia, Teddy desperately grasps for normalcy by marrying practically the first woman he sees who shows him any attention, Kate—a girl from his youth. In place of Beth, who married his old friend George Watson, he foists his love upon this poor girl with a laborious process. She relents to wedlock through sheer pressure. Their marriage is not consummated; it’s not based on committed love, but rather confusion and fear. Salesses’ characters spit honesty and lies like sunflower seeds into a bucket.
After the ceremony, at Teddy’s house for their wedding night, his parents away, they stand in his bedroom, he still in his tux, her in her dress. She sighs, and he sits down on the bed.
“I wish I’d known when we was young that I was going to marry you,” he says.
“I could have loved you all along.”
“You don’t love me,” Kate says.
No one knows what they want. They’re too young and damaged. Kate flings herself into icy water on a picnic, and Teddy saves her life, which inclines her to the idea of love. Later, Beth regrets her decision to leave and vies for Teddy, while Kate tears at herself, also unsure of her wants. George is nowhere to be seen. And Teddy’s parents attempt to mitigate the overflow of post-traumatic stress disorder. Without ruining the ending, it can be said that Teddy finds himself back home in a similar situation as he did in North Korea.
One can see every set piece as the opening of a movie. Salesses has an elliptical style, perfect for laconic soldiers in prison camp, gruff Virginia men, and shy virgins. Salesses knows how to write a fine sentence—fine in the traditional sense: well-wrought, attended-to, and unexpected.
For the first month, no one spoke to him, no more than a command to get out of the way or to help bury dead. At night the prisoners sleep side-by-side, so close they can’t turn over—this warmth is his only contact; it is the warmth keeping them alive. When it is time for their one meal, they stumble to the frozen river, which they use as a toilet, and clear enough ice to break a hole through. There, they fill a pot for soup. Sometimes Teddy smacks his lips in his sleep, waking the man next to him, in his dreams a clear glass of water.
His only friend is a man called Red, whom the others say is the last prisoner dumb enough to fight back. “Red versus the Reds,” they say. Red is from Virginia, too. Teddy tells him about the circle of soft earth. Another prisoner, O’Neil breaks in.
The Last Repatriate echoes the themes of more contemporary war stories: 2010’s Best Picture The Hurt Locker, Showtime’s Homeland, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and more fantastically, Jacob’s Ladder. Film perfectly fits this style of narrative: fractured, hurried, pulsing, paranoid. In order to feel and experience Teddy’s pain, we see and imagine and fall into the scene quickly aided by the script-like quality of the novel.
The only dip that breaks Salesses’s story is the minor misalignment of Teddy’s character and his background. While given brief asides about Teddy’s past with Kate, George, and Beth, the scenes can’t completely ground the emotional gaps that the story expose. The story would feel more complete if we knew why the childhood exploits of this quartet of friends matter so much, but the novella doesn’t dwell on these, and the gaps don’t crack the continuity. Overall, the story is invested in Teddy’s life after the Korean War. The Horrors of War can explain away a man’s more disturbing conditions upon return—ducking at distant car misfires, sudden crying jags, and implacable silences at the dinner table. Salesses is attempting to construct a way out of this nightmare for Teddy, showing that nightmares and homecomings can be on the same side of the coin if held at the right angle. It’s even said that he’s looking for “what is alterable.” Alterity, more than anything, is the silent theme of this book.
The Last Repatriate reaches out to make sense of senselessness, both in love and war. Salesses deftly shows the way for such souls deep down in the rabbit hole eating the gizzards.