This is a heartfelt and beautiful novel whose situation was inspired by a painful memory in the author’s family history. But this is a novel, and when the author’s imagination has to create an ending for that historic past, the work becomes less successful.
Come Landfall’s (University of Alabama Press, 2014) three interwoven love stories work well together. First, there is the main love story of Angela and Frank. Then there is the story of Angela’s grandmother, Nana, and her lost love, Rosey. And finally, there is the story of the Vietnamese Cam and of Joe, a policeman she loves. The three stories are set on the Mississippi coast, as American forces prepare for and then invade Iraq.That historic era is beautifully caught, as is Mississippi’s surface sheen and tropical weather. Angela works in a local casino serving drinks, lives with and cares for her grandmother, and falls in love with Frank, an airman whose family has a long military history. Grandmother Nana dreams from the opening pages of her husband Rosey, who disappeared into a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines sixty years ago, and who she dreams may still be alive. Cam, the ambitious daughter of a strict shrimp-boat father, is a pianist who brings Nana memories of her past by playing popular songs of that distant era.
As the novel builds to its conclusion, the hand of fate—or is it the author?—intervenes. Angela’s world of love ends, Nana dreams Rosey has come back to her (but has he really?), and the seduced Cam becomes pregnant. Until then, however, the reader is deeply involved in the lives of these three sympathetic characters. Particularly effective is the counterbalancing of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the invasion of Iraq, and the contrasting loves that come out of those historic moments: a dreamlike love, a heartless love, and a beautiful love.
And there are many beautiful moments. The most beautiful occurs when Frank takes Angela up in a glider, and, as they soar silently above a magic, unreal world below, he proposes to her. More frequent are the moments of dialogue among Angela, Frank, Nana, and Cam, for as they discuss their needs and debate their contrary views, they sound like real people talking. There are also magic moments, when the reference point shifts between Angela’s reality and Nana’s world of memories, and the author’s technical virtuosity underscores the link between their parallel loves of two servicemen during two distant wars.
This novel is grounded in the reality of Biloxi, Mississippi: its casinos, its antebellum homes, its nearby sea, its Vietnamese neighborhood, its military base, and its changing weather. Plus, its characters, whom we become fond of. For we want their love to be fulfilled, worry with them that fate will intervene, and see always the goodness in each of them. It is not often that one reads novels today with no real villain—except for one betrayer who reveals himself and then vanishes from the scene.
It is also not often that one reads a novel today with such an open presence of religion. Frank is an evangelical believer, and Angela is not, which prompts frequent honest discussions. Nana had married Rosey, a Jew, and there are continual reminders of his family’s observance of their faith. Meanwhile, Cam is a Buddhist who has been sent to a Catholic school but who continually sends written prayers to the Bodhisattva at his shrine. Their separate faiths are a presence that adds a texture to their separate stories, as they share a need to trust one another, as well as a need to find support from a world beyond.
The title, Come Landfall, refers to the havoc a hurricane creates once it reaches land. It is apparently meant as a metaphor for the fate that confronts our three pairs of lovers, not always a destructive fate, but a fate that certainly changes these characters’ lives. Nor is it a coincidence that Frank’s job at nearby Kessler Air force base is that of a weather forecaster.
And then Hurricane Katrina invades these characters’ lives, and one senses that it has revealed the hand of the author as much as the hand of fate—that he has taken their future out of their own hands, in order to find a dramatic way to end his novel. There is even a poetic final paragraph that takes one out of the world of reality, leaving one as marooned in space and time as our heroine Angela appears to be, while also re-enforcing the spiritual context. “She keeps them close, enveloping them, sheltering them, blessing them as so many, she understands, have laid their blessings on her.”
But Katrina was not for me the only drawback. There is also the ending of the story between Angela and Frank, perhaps because it takes place offstage and is not under their control. There is the lengthy and somewhat prosaic explanation for Rosey’s return to Nana. And there are even the repercussions from the disappearance of Cam’s father. All of these developments seem to be arbitrary choices that take one away from the fascinating lives of these characters—and remind one of the author.
To sum up, in many ways this is an old-fashioned novel—and, until its final quarter, a moving one. I do wish, in fact, there were more novels like its first three quarters—with good people helping each other as they struggle against fate rather than against each other, with the presence of a spiritual world within these people, with an awareness of the mirror of history, and with an absence of despair paired with a human yearning for happiness.
Robert A. Parker, a retired writer and editor, currently writes the blog, A Literary Cavalcade, that offers reviews of 20th and 21st century fiction. His past reviews, written over six decades, have been published in six volumes, also called A Literary Cavalcade. His commentaries on cultural subjects have appeared in America, The Critic, Sign, Communication Arts, Americas, Vuelta, and other publications. He has designed, edited, and written 20 volumes that summarize his literary and photographic career.
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I love that idea, that we are pilgrims on a journey through time. I love that we humans try so hard to find our places on that long road. And I love that you and I are ineffable, numinous pieces of some great mystery we will never fully understand.
I wake with a kind of jolt in my stomach: I know where I am, but I do not know when I am. When in time am I? Are my children both sleeping in the other room? Will I hear their small feet pattering on the floor as they come in to wake me? Will they tumble into bed with Eric and me?
As a witness of thought, it struck me deeply that I must be something much more than what had been running through my mind. I was so identified with thinking that I truly mistook thought for who I was.