The Last Repatriate
(Nouvella Books, 2011)
Matthew Salesses’s novella, The Last Repatriate, is a little book, four inches by six, at a slim 70 pages, but it attempts, for the most part successfully, to tell a story of war and its consequences.
The book begins in 1950 in a Korean forest. Theodore Dickerson, a young soldier from Virginia, receives a letter from his fiancée Beth breaking off their engagement. Later in the scene he’s clubbed in the back of the head with the butt of a rifle. He comes to in a P.O.W. camp, where the narrative becomes fragmented. Short, bracingly clear paragraphs describe the horrors of the camp: a prisoner is dragged naked into the cold; the Chinese guards sew gizzards into the armpits of sick soldiers; Teddy is so thin “fingers dip between ribs when he scratches himself.” For no clear reason, Teddy is thrown into the Hole, “a cement vault neither long enough to lie in or high enough to sit in,” the floor of which is covered in vomit and feces. The rest of the book inhabits a metaphoric extension of this claustrophobic place, where movement is constricted and logic is nonexistent.
When Teddy returns to Virginia after the war, he’s celebrated as a hero. Beth has married Teddy’s childhood friend George, and this adds to Teddy’s sense of alienation. In an attempt to try to live a normal life, Teddy takes up with Kate, a disturbed woman whose mother committed suicide. The situation is believable, but it’s jarring to read Kate described in this way: “We see her emerge, roughly dressed, her hair morning-mussed, sleep in her eyes, yet gorgeous, of course, for this is our girl to fall in love with.” In the acknowledgements, Salesses thanks a colleague for helping “shape the book when it was still a screenplay.” The novella is much more effective when Salesses avoids the language of scripts, especially since his images are so strong right to the end, with Teddy in a mental hospital, hiding under his bed. Like the rest of the book, this detail concisely illustrates how war destroys individuals.