It's 1967, the Vietnam War is raging, and the facade of an old, conservative America has been ripped wide open. Tim Halladay is a confused, sensitive college graduate whose plans to study drama at Yale are extinguished when the army drafts him. His girlfriend doesn't understand why he won't just claim that he's gay, like so many others are doing, but he can't bring himself to "check the box." If he did, he would betray himself twice over. In fact, he is gay, but he becomes determined to accept his fate and prove his manhood.
Green, the latest novel in Tom Baker's Halladay cycle, is a revelatory addition to the literature about the U.S. Army and Vietnam, not only because it portrays the experience of a gay soldier, but also because Baker offers a new sense of what might drive a young man to endure the indignities of boot camp and the prospect of death in an outrageous war. Baker lingers on moments of connection between Halladay and the soldiers he befriends, and he builds tension as Halladay chooses to remain celibate even after observing the shadow culture of fooling around within the ranks.
Baker's writing is crisp and straightforward, yet the turbulence under the surface causes the reader to slow down and consider what isn't being said. The effect invokes Baker's two main influences, J. D. Salinger and John Cheever. "Catcher in the Rye had a profound impact on me as a young man," Baker says. "I bonded with Holden Caulfield and I think his voice crept into Tim Halladay." The journey of reading all three of the Halladay novels—The Sound of One Horse Dancing, Paperwhite Narcissus, and Green—offers an ever-expanding view of the protagonist as he works to stay true to himself amid the structures that come to define his life, whether it's the cutthroat world of Madison Avenue, the confines of the College of William and Mary under Jim Crow, or the uncompromising, hypocritical army.
Like Halladay, Baker studied theater at the College of William and Mary and joined the advertising industry in the Mad Men era. "I was the hot star on campus, dating girls and sleeping with my roommate," Baker says. "This was 1962. Eventually, I knew my acting/dancing career was limited and I started focusing my creative energies on writing, an outlet that became more comfortable over the years."
Baker began his first novel while working for Grey Advertising. "The pressures of my job did not allow me to focus on writing a novel," Baker says, "although I dragged my portable Olympia typewriter with me to Fire Island and even to Hawaii on vacations so I could write while everyone else was having cocktails and dinner." It was then that he cultivated his interest in Cheever, whose work reminded him of growing up in Westport, Conn., an affluent commuting town in Fairfield County.
The product of those years, The Sound of One Horse Dancing, remains Baker's favorite among his books. That novel introduces us to Halladay after his time in the army, when he is now a rising star on Madison Avenue. He's about to be fired, but he doesn't know why. The reason is not uncovered until we learn more about Halladay's sexual exploits in New York, which are explored further in the story collection Full Frontal. It's one of the many incredible discoveries to be found in the works of this too-little-known writer who has made a significant contribution to American literature.
Books by Tom Baker
The Sound of One Horse Dancing
Full Frontal: To Make a Long Story Short
For more information, visit tombakerbooks.com.