By: Christopher Torockio
Paperback: 292 pages
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press (February 15, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
The Soul Hunters takes place in a single afternoon and night during which three brothers come together to finish cleaning out the family home after their father’s death. Accompanied by their wives, they take in what is left of a yard sale; they get pizza; they bury a dog. They do average things because they are average, contemporary, middle class, middle aged men. Still, as I read this book, I kept thinking of the novels written in another era about high society Bostonians or New Yorkers. Torockio brings the careful, psychological analysis of Wharton or James to lives of his characters, rendering them complex, individual, and deeply worthwhile as they go about their apparently ordinary lives.
Early on, son Nick, recalls his confusion when a military doctor examining him in 1967 determines him unfit for duty because a high school football injury has left him unable to fully raise his left arm. The sergeant who processes his paperwork is equally confused. “So what’s the problem? That your jerking off arm?” Filled with unnamed, conflicting emotions, Nick goes home to tell his father.
“Well, I . . . I kinda failed.”
And his father’s gaze left him for just a moment, a brief scan of the sky above the grape arbor and then returned. “You did, huh?”
Nick nodded. He sensed a pulling in his chest. He was ashamed; he was insanely happy. He had the distinct understanding that he was safe, yet this safety made him sick with fear.
His father rose, nodded almost imperceptibly. “That’s good,” he said, and let out a breath of unmistakable relief. Nick felt a cry rise up in him but he choked it back, expelling a sound like a goose honking.
Nick is spared going to combat, but the fear and shame, doubtlessly magnified by his eventual understanding of the real reason behind the doctor’s decision, alter his view of himself and the world. A compromise has been made that radiates subtly throughout the book and causes deep and wide ranging ramifications.
An apparently offhand remark has an almost equally deep effect on the younger brother, Stewart. Stewart is a nontenured English professor who finds a rare joy in teaching a class based on the writers who inspired him when he was a young man. At a late afternoon faculty meeting, as people are already standing to leave, a new professor denounces the failure of the department to teach works written by women and minorities. He cites the curriculum of Stewart’s class as an especially egregious example of racism. There is certainly no happiness mixed with Stewart’s sensations of fear and shame. Nor is there the confidence he needs to either defend himself or to accept criticism and make meaningful change. There is only the sense of having been unmanned, made infinitely worse by his own later attempt to find out if the new professor is personally angry at him. In a few words that capture much of the social turmoil of our era, Torockio shows what it is like to be unequal to larger forces, to feel simultaneously embarrassed by a social gaffe and humiliated by the possibility that he actually has been perpetuating racism. Stewart broods over this single accusation from a new colleague as deeply as he broods over other issues that might ordinarily appear far more important, but we understand why. His sense of self has been shaken.
The third brother, Lawrence, shares with his wife the painful secret of their past bankruptcy. Although the couple has since repaired their credit and “emerged” as the financially secure people they pretended to be all along, they are slow to shake off their sense of unworthiness. A trip to Italy to celebrate their hard won solvency culminates in a night of opera at a magnificent 2,000 year old arena. The beauty of the music and the night are too much for his wife, who finds herself “unable to imagine it, even as she lived it.” She remembers the look on the hotel clerk’s face as they counted out “archaic” traveler’s checks because they didn’t have an acceptable credit card. In lesser hands, anguish like this would be object of petty satire, but in The Soul Hunters it is moving because we see how hard the couple is working to do the right things and how difficult it is for them to hold onto the life they had once been sure they would have.
This is a novel of great subtlety, intelligence, and dignity, portraying both unique individual characters and the social angst of their eras with an easy grace.