SOLDIER'S JOY. By Madison Smartt Bell. Penguin Books. 465 pages. $8.95. IN VIETNAM, Thomas Laidlaw had an unusual accident. The weather was hot, and Laidlaw wasn't wearing boots. "Just these little cotton slippers," he remembers. Some guys drove up and began unloading a truck. Laidlaw offered to help. There were these real heavy cases; they were wooden with metal strips down the edges. One of those strips came loose on the bottom. It was sticking out like a knife blade, and . . .
"That had to be the one that got dropped on my foot. It was just like a guillotine, really. Sheared right through my shoes, toes and everything else." So according to Laidlaw, DianeScharperhe sat there and picked up his toes. That's when he decided to keep them. "For luck, if you know what I mean."
But back home in Tennessee, people don't know what Laidlaw meant. Laidlaw has trouble explaining it. How does a man heal body and soul wounded by war? How does he come together again, become whole? How does one live and love in a fragmented world?
These are the questions raised by Madison Smartt Bell, visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, in his fifth novel, "Soldier's Joy." First published in 1989 and now issued in paperback, the novel justifiably received critical acclaim. Some reviewers cited Bell's artistic integrity, his genius with symbolism, his eye for detail. Writing about the ocean at night, Bell describes the light from an evening star: "It rode toward him [Laidlaw] across waves that said hush, hush, hush, over and over, collapsing over one another on the sand. Laidlaw was quietening within himself and a restlessness that had been in him began to drain away . . ."
The book's plot explains how that restlessness ebbs. It's a sad, even tragic story that initially focuses on one white man, Laidlaw, and his attempt to live honestly in a 1970s racist South that's anything but honest. Readers soon meet Rodney Redmon, a black man, Laidlaw's boyhood companion and, later, his comrade in Vietnam. "Soldier's Joy" becomes a war story played out on three battlefields: Vietnam, Tennessee and the human heart.
The story opens as Laidlaw returns from Vietnam. He's lost his toes, but, more important, he's lost himself. "Retrain," Sevier, his superior officer, has suggested. That, however, is easier said than done. Attempting to work on the farm he inherited from his father, Laidlaw frequently loses his balance and falls. His lack of balance, though, mirrors a more serious problem.
Laidlaw is unable to dream and so sleeps fitfully, awakening after an hour or so to roam the nearby woods. On one of these midnight outings, he sees Redmon for the first time in several years. He hides, not so much from Redmon as from himself. As "image after unlooked-for image appear[s] on the back of his eyelids . . .," he sees his memories as a kaleidoscope. They are "fractured . . . impossible to identify." He feels there's no order to things and becomes obsessed with music; soon he plays the banjo almost constantly. Running his fingers up and down the strings, he looks for an aesthetic order. He worries. I can't dream, he says. And he can't avoid Redmon.
Redmon, too, has problems. These come not from past battles in Vietnam, but from his own past. Redmon knows discrimination first-hand. Worse, that discrimination started with Wat, his father and handyman on the Laidlaw farm. Redmon thought his father was the whole world, yet "he liked you better than me," he tells Laidlaw. "It's because you white."
Stop, Laidlaw tells him in one of the poignant moments of the narrative. Laidlaw has always loved Redmon -- as a brother, possibly more. Bell doesn't specify the nature of that love. That it exists is enough. Eventually, Laidlaw takes on Redmon's problems; his memory "opens," and he reconnects to the world. As the novel ends, Laidlaw and Redmon confront the police, the Ku Klux Klan and justice that's blind, deaf and dumb. They live in a day, as the book's epigraph suggests, "when burning sticks and crosses/Is not mere child's play/But a madman's most incandescent bloom . . ."
Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.