The Roanoke Times, Sunday, June 13, 1999
WRITERS AND EVENTS OF REGIONAL INTEREST
A vet's postwar life in Roanoke
Reviewed by A.K. WILLIAMS
TANGERINE SKY. By Barbara Fleenor Turner, Briarwood Publications Inc. $7.50.
Turner has, according to her bio, interviewed more than 200 Vietnam veterans in preparation for writing this book. For those of us who are not familiar with the dark side of vet-hood, the revelations of Turner's protagonist are shocking. The mythical Jimmy Meade, who lives in the very real Penn Forest area of Roanoke, is a 40ish vet who appears to be suffering some from the more fickle symptoms of poisoning by Agent Orange. His flashbacks and memories are almost too painful to read about, much less to imagine living.
The time is the early 1980s, and Jimmy has been back from Nam for more than 10 years. His patriotism and self-confidence led him to complete four tours of duty and then to feel lucky that he got out in one piece. His no-nonsense wife and his two young sons regard their breadwinner with respect and, occasionally, fear. The older son is chafing under his father's iron rule, but the younger son, only 10, idolizes his father and is the most confused when the family's center begins to collapse.
The author has woven a lot of contemporary social problem into her narrative, wrapping Jimmy Meade and his crisis in a nest of familiar themes that all of us can recognize. Jimmy's feisty wife is yearning for some personal fulfillment and finds a full-time job that she loves.
The older son becomes ensnared by an older woman who hires him as a handyman. Jimmy himself can't reconcile the love and trust he has for his wife with a sudden need to prove himself in other, less savory situations.
The Nam flashbacks and their disastrous effect on Jimmy are the core of the book, however, and do a remarkable job of making the day-to-day lives of the soldiers who served there feel more real and gritty than other accounts do. Turner's protagonist isn't a particularly endearing man, nor is he someone who would capture a reader's heart. He can be rough, raw, narrow-minded and petty. But the horrors that he faced as a soldier have come back to haunt him and give the reader more than enough room for pity and grief on his behalf.
Turner writes in a straightforward, unfussy manner. The sometimes awkward sentences seem consistent with the rocky, awkward lives being presented. One might, however, quibble with some of the dialogue between husband and wife, mother and son, boyfriend and girlfriend. The things these people say to one another seem too coached to be realistic family exchanges.
Both the author and her publisher are local, and the novel's Roanoke setting is intriguing for anyone who lived in the valley around the time in which the events take place.
A book of this nature, with its local roots and theme-laden plot, is going to affect everyone who reads it. Some will be shocked by the subject matter and language. Every reader will be forced to look more closely at his own family dynamic and consider how complex and fragile a marriage, a child, a life can be.
Turner's purpose appears to have been to expose some of the darker currents of military service in Vietnam and the threat of permanent damage brought about by stress and toxic chemicals sprayed on the soldiers. She does a fine job of portraying how the pressures of civilian life can force that damage to burrow further into a man's soul. Each memory that Jimmy faces is another nail in his flesh, and Turner sees him as a sacrifice. Even though Jimmy and his family are fictional, they feel almost as real as anyone you are likely to know in your own life, and the intimate revelations of their private sorrows will draw you in.
A.K.WILLLAMS lives and works in Roanoke.