Inadequacy. Missed Opportunities. Silence.
The narrator in Robert Olen Butler's first published short story is a man existing in his present life when he learns that a war buddy of his was killed in combat. The narrator is existing and not living his life for the very reasons that he always envied his buddy Duncan Pratt. Duncan Pratt was educated, cultured, and he had the inside track when it came to their assignments and the expectations of what was waiting for them in Vietnam. The narrator played basketball in a small midwestern college but he didn't like it. He doesn't seem to enjoy or embrace his adult life either with his wife, Marta. He lacks the perception to make impulsive decisions like Duncan Pratt and he mourns that in his own way at the end of the story when he decides to call Duncan's widow and share a quote with her about living life and cheating death only to find out that he can't reach her. The phone in his hand is dead. So is the heart in his chest.
A paragraph from the story that explores this fully is as follows:
“Sounds pretty dull. I like the action, the movement,” I lied, and realized it was my last lie for now because we were nearing the pain of the half mile; and I knew this lie was woefully inadequate because Duncan recognized it for what it was. But I knew he wasn't so sure about his own work and I wanted to run faster, run away from him, but it was no good because for some damn reason I needed to convince him I'd live.
Duncan Pratt lived, and though he died, he didn't die in vain because he'd lived. The narrator, as the story concludes, realizes that his silence and his missed opportunities have left him in a state of existence that the reader senses Marta is aware of as well. What he plans to do now, we don't know. I get the feeling that he doesn't know either.
This is a great first story by Robert Olen Butler and it paved the way for much of his fiction that lives and breathes inside of Vietnam without being ABOUT Vietnam. I'm glad I found it and that I chose it for the first story of 2012. It's time to start living, to break the silence. Words have weight and carry a heavy burden when unspoken.