The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Hymn to Intellectual Beauty by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Travis Lee Stanhope had just graduated from Harvard. He wasn’t your typical Harvard graduate. He wasn’t the son of a powerful bluestocking family. In fact his father was barely educated at all. Travis Lee was a self-made man. He was accepted to Harvard on merit. It didn’t mean he belonged. He didn’t have the right accent for one, being from Texas, and I’d be surprised if he owned a dinner jacket or even cared to know what one was. What he did know about was how he felt about literature. He loved literature and especially he loved reading Shelley.
Now instead of taking that Harvard degree and using it to land himself a fat job in some corporate structure or to pontificate at a university he decided that he wanted a little adventure. When I think about a little adventure I decide to go to Boston or San Francisco and map out a tour of historic sites, museums, and great restaurants. Travis Lee decides that he needs to join the British army and travel on the British Realm's dime to see what this dust up is all about with the Germans. It is 1916.Trench in Flanders
The British officers turn out to be the same kind of posh upper class morons/assholes he just left in Massachusetts.
Travis Lee, like most of us, has unresolved issues in particular with his father. In fact he tried to kill him at one point, ran him off, and he left specific instructions with his little brother Bobby to do the same thing if the “son-of-a-bitch” shows up again. Travis Lee is in the middle of a war zone, trench warfare, with all the inherent fears of being either blown to smithereens or buried alive in a collapsed bunker. As afraid as he is of what the Boche will do to him he is more afraid of what is in his head. In a series of letters to his brother Bobby he reveals the extent of his fears. ”I dreamed about Pa last night. We were in the dugout together, just the two of us; and the Boche were shelling. It was a murky place, black except for a single candle. I could just make out his eyes and hands--Pa’s worst parts. He was taking off his belt and he was saying in that low dangerous voice of his, “‘Pears you’re sassing me, boy. You sassing me?” Me in a gloomy corner of a darkened room; Pa the monster. Above my head bombs were falling; but soft and terrible I could hear Pa hiss: “You sassing me?”
Travis Lee can travel thousands of miles away, but his head is still trapped in a darkened room with his father on a goat farm in Harper, Texas.
He starts to see things. Ghosties as he calls them, dead soldiers, fallen friends. They are in his dreams and sometimes they manifest themselves in daylight just as real as if they still walked the earth. He has what I can only call spiritual moments that temporarily turn horror into beauty. ”It was a corpse. A Boche. His skull was cerulean. The tatters of skin left him were the complex hue of the ocean. A god of a creature. His hands were open. Maggots shone like golden suns in his palms.”When Stanhope loses his nerve as a sniper he becomes a stretcher bearer.
Stanhope is good with a rifle. He’s a good plunker as we used to say where I grew up. Soon he is spending most of his time on the front lines in NO MANS LAND
picking off Germans. His commanding officer, Miller, is thrilled to see the company sniper kill ratio continue to climb. Miller went to all the right schools, loves literature, and has his own problems fitting in given that he is a Jew in a Protestant army. Stanhope likes him. As it turns out Miller likes him more, if you get my drift. Stanhope is so lonely he finds himself, against his better judgement, actually giving Miller encouragement. Maybe a better way to explain the loneliness/surrealness that Stanhope feels is to take a trip to visit a prostitute with him. You can keep your trousers on. ”I got the skinny one this time. Her hair was all done up in curls. Ringlets framed her cheek. We lay side by side, not talking, not fucking. She had the most amazing milk white skin, and rosy little nipples. I ran my hand all over her slow. A miracle how whole her body was, what a blessing. She kept trying to kiss me. She played with my pecker. But after a while she stopped trying to earn her five shillings so hard. She stared at the ceiling, and she was smiling a little. I stroked her. I smelled her skin. I buried my face in her ringlets and smelled her hair.
When my nose and hands knew her, I rolled on top and nudged her legs apart. Being in her felt safe. I rested there for a while. My head was against her chest. I could hear her heart beating, a sound to sleep to.
I took hold of her hand and put it on my cheek. Whores are good at understanding what a man needs; and so she caressed my face, my shoulders until I felt real again.”Stanhope's working environment in No Man's Land
The company gets leave to move back from the front lines and it is like emerging from HELL into something out of a lost part of his life. ”I found out there was still green in the world. I saw grass and just sat myself down in the middle of it. It was misting rain. Water gathered on my face, ran down either side of my forehead. Drops hung like crystal beads on my lashes. Every time I blinked, I blinked prisms. I dug my fingers into the soil. Instead of bones and war trash I felt damp loam, good strong roots, hidden grubs. I felt life. I felt of it careful. And it was intimate--like holding the earth gently, so gently, by the snatch.”Mike Sullivan
has led a campaign to bring this book some much deserved attention. It was published by ACE SCIENCE FICTION which was a huge mistake. From working in bookstores I know this book was shelved in the Science Fiction section which is the absolute wrong place for it to be. There are mystical moments in the book, but certainly nothing that would bring it into the realm of fantasy. Publishing this under the wrong imprint not only killed sales for this book, but also at the present time seems to have suspended Patricia Anthony’s writing career. It is all baffling to think about. Her agent at least needs to be put in front of a nerf ball firing squad, just so he/she feels the disdain of a poorly performed duty.Patricia Anthony
There is so much more to the plot than what I’ve covered in this review. There is a psychopath attacking women and Stanhope finds himself sordidly involved. There is ribald soldier's humor. ”I was having a good sit-down myself, not the yellow squirt I get when the water’s bad, nor the dark goat-turd pebbles I get when the food’s not plentiful enough. No, this was a great, glorious golden cigar of a turd that felt fine and upstanding coming out, a British sort of turd.
Anthony explores the conditions of trench warfare and the sense of displacement the men feel when they have to take up new quarters. A man named Pickering develops an attachment to a sandbag with what seems to be a cross smeared into the cloth. He is depressed for days afterward when they are forced to relocate. This is a book that is pleasure to read; and yet, conveys a depth that will linger with you long after you leave the muck and mud of Flanders, France.