By Paulette Livers
Counterpoint Press: March 17, 2015 (paperback)
304 pages, $15.95
One of my recent literary preoccupations has been literature by women about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve read and reviewed several novels and story collections exploring the lives of soldiers, those at home, and the challenges of homecoming (see the list here) from the female point of view.
Paulette Livers’s gritty novel Cementville, which takes place at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, is a reminder that war is a universal experience, with the same issues recurring across conflicts and generations. Through the many characters and conflicts in Cementville, Livers probes the effect of loss and grief on families and an entire town, how soldiers returning with PTSD adjust to being home, the attempts of soldiers and their loved ones to rebuild or redirect shattered lives, and the varying views about war and its aftermath within a community.
This novel in the form of interconnected stories begins in May 1969, when seven of the town’s young men return from Vietnam in coffins, all killed in one firefight at Phu Bai. They had joined the Kentucky National Guard hoping to avoid combat but were sent into harm’s way. One soldier returns alive. Harlan O’Brien, the local high school’s former star quarterback, has spent three years in a POW camp and returns without a leg and suffering from PTSD.
The residents of Cementville are forced to cope with an event for which they are utterly unprepared: multiple funerals and returning veterans with PTSD. In addition to Harlan O’Brien, we meet several other characters who show us the various sides of life in Cementville.
Maureen is a 13-year-old girl who dreams of escaping her claustrophobic hometown and who serves as an innocent and non-judgmental observer. Wanda, the local librarian who spends all her non-working hours hiding from people at home, offers another perspective on people and events. Evelyn Slidell, the matriarch of the town’s wealthiest family (and, in a sense, of Cementville itself), provides a view into the town’s checkered history.
The seedy side of Cementville is revealed through the various misdeeds of the Ferguson clan, infamous for their violence, alcohol abuse, and promiscuity. We are also introduced to Giang Smith, a Vietnamese war bride struggling to assimilate to life in America, who finds that the ghosts of Vietnam have followed her to this quiet town in Kentucky.
The novel’s strength lies in its multi-faceted examination of a diverse group of people trying to adapt to a world that seems to have come unmoored. Change is everywhere: war, civil rights, feminism, scientific progress (the moon landing of July 1969), youth culture (Woodstock happened in August 1969), and a shifting economy (the cement factory that gives the town its name has been struggling through a manpower shortage with so many of the town’s young men away at war). Livers focuses on some characters more than others, but we get snapshots of many lives in this one town which, if not quite a microcosm of America in 1969, at least serves as a useful case study.
The downside of using such a wide cast of characters is that the novel ends up slightly overloaded. Some characters and subplots are more compelling than others. The omission of one or two subplots would have resulted in a more streamlined, focused, and potent narrative. Because it’s a novel-in-stories, it is not quite as unified and coherent as it could have been if it had been written in a more traditional manner. And the narrative failed to develop the momentum I expected from the novel’s synopsis and early sections; the frequent movement among several narrators and characters creates a somewhat fragmented reading experience that occasionally made it feel as though I was being pulled in a few too many directions.
It’s always a particular challenge to write a “political” novel that manages to keep the politics underneath the storyline so it doesn’t distract from the characters and plot. [Livers discusses the writing of Cementville in this essay, originally posted here on August 24, 2014.] In that regard, Cementville is mostly a success; if anything, the crowded plot, with some borderline Southern Gothic elements, threatens to diminish her political messages.
Still, despite these quibbles, I found Cementville an affecting read — and an important one. Livers’s writing can be both pointed and lyrical, and she evokes a powerful sense of place. The community of Cementville comes to life in these pages. If you are interested in the impact a faraway war can have on one community, you should add Cementville to your reading list.
I like the sound of this, I do like that kind of narrative structure, although as you point out, it does mean that often some stories have more power than others.