cover image The Volunteer

The Volunteer

Salvatore Scibona. Penguin Press, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-0-525-55852-1

Scibona’s spirited second novel (after 2008 National Book Award Finalist The End) begins in 2010 as a man abandons a child at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel airport. The story then flashes back to the late 1960s as underage Iowan Vollie Frade volunteers for the Marines. While serving in Vietnam, he meets mystery man Percy Lorch, who recruits him for an unnamed government spook operation. Vollie’s assignment is to move to Queens to verify whether a man named Egon Hausmann is dead. But after six months, fed up with his covert masters’ veil of secrecy, Vollie escapes from Queens and heads for New Mexico, where he disappears into a free love commune. There he finds a wife, the free-spirited Louisa, and young son, Elroy Heflin, a child of the commune. But Vollie ends up abandoning his makeshift family after a stint as a barbed wire inspector. Elroy goes on to see action during several tours of duty in Afghanistan while fathering and abandoning a child of his own. The story ultimately comes back to Vollie, who finds that he can’t escape the bad decisions of his past. Like the late Robert Stone, Scibona exhibits a command of language and demonstrates a knack for dramatizing the tidal pull of history on individual destiny. The novel accrues real power as its vividly imagined characters try to make sense of an often senseless world. This is a bold, rewarding novel. (Mar.)