Lisa Reardon is on my Best 100 Mysteries of All Time list for her first book Billy Dead. If I’d read The Mercy Killers before I finalized the list, she may have had two entries. The Mercy Killers is not an easy read, and yet, it compels and rivets the reader with little action other than the characters living their lives, as dysfunctional as they are. The toughness comes from the unrelenting negativity surrounding the crowd at McGurk’s Taproom in Ypsilanti, MI. The book starts with what feels like a forced addition–forced by an editor or publisher to encapsulate the plot before the story even begins, to give the reader a broad idea of what lies ahead–trouble. And war.
“It’s hard to think how different their lives would have been if it weren’t for the mess they go themselves into, if it weren’t for that war, if they hadn’t all been so young and stupid and scared.”
Even the blurb on the dust jacket quotes what should be the beginning:
“On a rainy evening in the spring of 1967, Old Jerry hunkers on his bar stool like a liquor-soaked question mark. The topic of conversation is his long awaited suicide.”
That’s the true beginning of the story. The perennial drunk, Old Jerry keeps mouthing off about wanting to die, asking those around him to kill him, it’s his 70th birthday and he’s tired of living. The members of the little band of regulars at the bar; Old Jerry’s grandsons- Charlie and P. T.; Gino, a kid everyone quietly knows is gay ; Bobby, a black man and his dog; Sheila, Charlie’s girlfriend; and the barkeep, Gil, and his daughter, Katherine, have intertwining stories that separate, and then dovetail together again, for a short period of time. Bobby and P.T. are survivors of a brutal childhood, their father having beat the brains out of P.T. to the point of retardation. P. T. who took the beatings to divert his father from his brother Charlie sees his dead mother in various situations and places. He seems a gentle, slightly touched soul. Charlie is fiercely protective of his older brother so when P. T. smothers Old Jerry-in what he believes is a mercy killing, Charlie and his best friend Gino try to cover up by disposing the body. Caught, Charlie confesses and in lieu of doing time in prison, agrees to a stint in Vietnam–figuring it to be a better choice.
We are given letters between Charlie and P. T., detailing essentially nothing of the hell Charlie is experiencing on a moment by moment basis. He starts corresponding with a pen-pal from his old high school, Diane , and because she volunteers at the VA hospital, he can unload the truth about bodies exploding, riddled with shrapnel, friends dying at his side, the heat, the swamps, the green green land, the leeches, the mindlessness of every day maneuvers. There is no political over or undertone in this book. The war is strictly from the soldier’s point of view, which has no common ground with the people who sent them there, or the people who protest their being there. Charlie’s motivation is to stay alive another hour. The horrors are told matter of factly, no drama, no hyperbole. In turn, the true cost of war is seen clearly in the lives of Charlie, and Gino, who was drafted and served somewhere within that massive jungle.
Both get out alive, or at least their bodies come home attached to what once were two young kids. Gino cannot function. He cannot abide the homeland. He wants to return to ‘nam because he feels its the only place left. He’s a junkie, turned old, with dead eyes and spirit. Charlie is in turmoil. He and Diane get married before he’s released, and set up housekeeping after. He has a regular 9 to 5 job, something he’d never attempted before. His nightmares occur on a daily basis. He is angry his brother didn’t make it to his wedding and that P. T. doesn’t seem to want to leave the ‘home’ he’s at to live with them.
Sheila had disclosed to Charlie before he was shipped overseas that she was pregnant with his kid–he wanted her to lose it, get rid of it. She didn’t write to him during his stint. Yet when they meet again after 2 years, they are drawn towards each other as one is to home, something familiar in an otherwise foreign world. They return to McGurk’s to find nothing has changed, nothing is the same.
Essentially it’s a story about the love between two brothers and the havoc violence, all kinds, plays in their lives. P. T.’s chances at a normal existence were eliminated by the violence of his father, Charlie’s life is spent trying to keep P. T. from harm, and dodging the effects a horrific thing such as war brings. Although set in the late 1960s during the Vietnam Conflict, it could have been any other decade full of the senselessness of killing each other over invisible lines, or bogus political infractions. There are veterans from every war that never come home. They live back in the jungle or desert of their minds. Servicemen and women involved in Iraq and Afghanistan are committing suicide at an unbearable rate. The time that passes between world conflicts should have prepared us somehow, taught the next wave of individuals sent to an ungodly place for obscure reasons how to cope upon return. The shell shocked WWI vet should have prepared the WWII soldier for the aftermath. Korean vets should have been able to explain to Vietnam soldiers about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. And god knows, the entire Vietnam pointless mess should have kept any American from engaging in another pointless mess. We don’t learn from history. We are bound to repeat it. And we do.
The Mercy Killers is a snapshot of damaged souls trying to survive the war of life. It is touching, tough, and thought provoking. The characters feel as though they lived next door or down the street. They reminded me of a couple of kids I knew who went off to Vietnam, one literally never returned, the other in body only. It speaks of the past, which is the present, and will probably be the future.
***Footnote–and quite a shocking one–Ms. Reardon was arrested in 2009 for attempted murder of her father. She used a shotgun and he was hit in the legs and buttocks. She tried hitting him again after he fled into his house, but failed. She had apparently planned the shooting, withdrawing her small savings and loading her car with books for while on the lam. She called her sister and explained she was ‘sorry’, not for shooting her father, but that she missed and would never get the chance again. She also expressed regret in not being able to bury her cat of 17 years. She reached a deal with the prosecutor’s office, and was given 2 years for the attempted murder, and 2 years for the illegal gun–a mandatory sentence. Many people were outraged at her light sentence, claiming sexism, in that were she a man, she wouldn’t have gotten off with so little time. There is wide speculation that there were mitigating circumstances, in that she and her father were not on very good terms, for reasons probably linked with her childhood. She once stated in an interview that she was forced to go to bars her father frequented because her mother falsely believed that her husband wouldn’t take a child in such a place. She said the customers all made big deals of her being there, which she found odd. In The Mercy Killers, a child is brought to the bar regularly. Although she has stated that none of her books are autobiographic, the depiction of fathers are not positive ones. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse abounds in her story lines. I assume Ms. Reardon is still in prison. Although no one advocates violence or excuses it, background info would be helpful in understanding how such a brilliant writer could snap in such a way.