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Lavonne Neff


Kissing the Dead

In 1968, a pivotal year in The Names of the Dead, the protagonist, Larry Markham, and I were both 19 years old. Most of my male friends had unaccountably felt a call to the ministry, thus meriting a 4-d classification (today none of them are pastors). My only friend who went to Vietnam, a brilliant musician, came home early with a body full of shrapnel and a mind sequestered in an inaccessible world.

In 1982, the other important year in this novel, Larry Markham's body is functioning well, though minus a foot; but his mind, like my friend's, inhabits a horror chamber where a falling leaf may presage a guerrilla attack, any door may be booby-trapped, and nightly the dry bones of the dead reassemble in order to be freshly killed, ever more grotesquely.

The post-traumatic stress syndrome has been amply chronicled by a profusion of grisly novels: my medium-sized public library, under the rubric "Vietnam Conflict, Fiction," lists 105 titles. It would be a mistake, however, to toss The Names of the Dead on the genre heap. O'Nan, a sparsely elegant stylist, blends elements of suburban realism, war story, thriller, and mystery in this exploration of one man's mind under siege.

For 14 years Larry Markham has taken cover in his personal fortress, but now the external world assaults his defenses. His wife and son have left him, taking the family car. His attractive but psychotic neighbor offers rides, and more. His father, a widowed physician, is behaving erratically. The one bright spot in Larry's week is the rap group he facilitates at the va hospital. And then Creeley, a mysterious newcomer to the group, escapes and begins stalking him.

Larry, then, is doubly stalked, for war memories ambush him night and day. A soldier in Okinawa had predicted it: "It don't matter if they're dead, they come get you anyway." Salazar [see excerpt] is the first in his squad to be hit; one by one 12 others fall. Larry grows numb: carrying one end of yet another body bag, he thinks, "They weren't that ...

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