One of the things that makes John Hart’s novels, including his newest, “The Unwilling,” so compelling is his ability to create complex characters whose actions and courage linger with us long after we’ve finished reading the story. Jason French is one such character, and his inability to reconnect with his family after serving almost three years as a soldier in the Vietnam War is what we first learn about him. We learn much more about not only Jason, but his younger brother Gibby, and their parents. What we learn and how Hart shares the relationships and the emotions is what makes this an unforgettable story.
When Jason French arrives back in Charlotte, North Carolina, his hometown, after being in prison and a halfway house from drug-related crimes, he goes to see his little brother, Gibby, at the quarry where the high school kids hang out. Gibby’s planning on going to college, which will give him a deferment from the draft, and he’s nervous about being with his older brother, who seems alien with his checkered past of war and drugs. Jason’s twin brother, Robert, had been drafted to go to war and was killed there, and it was after that event that Jason enlisted to go. We don’t find out until much later in the story what Jason’s war story was, but in the Acknowledgments at the start of the novel, Hart gives us a hint by writing about Hugh Thompson, Jr,, the soldier who stopped the My Lai massacre in Vietnam through his courageous action.
“The Unwilling” starts with a powerful quote:
“We the unwilling, led by the unqualified to kill the unfortunate, die for the ungrateful.”Unknown soldier
But the story doesn’t take place in Vietnam at all. The whole story takes place in Charlotte or its environs, and the story is driven by the people we meet in the pages of this novel. We meet Jason, who is many things to many people. He’s Gibby’s mysterious big brother, he’s the man who saved the life of his best friend in the Marines, he’s the son of a father who doesn’t understand him and a mother who doesn’t love him enough, and he’s a man of incredible strength and moral fortitude in spite of the fact that he hangs out with drug dealers, sells weapons illegally, and has done things he will never share with his family. We also get to know Gibby, a kid who begins the story as a pampered child, practically an only child, whose mother cossets him and whose father protects him from the seedy aspects of life that he sees as a detective on the Charlotte police force. But Gibby is made of stern stuff, like his brother Jason, and his loyalty, once given, will not be put away when such loyalty is inconvenient or when he ordered to by his father. Gibby will end up risking his life to help his brother.
There are other important characters we meet. Chance is Gibby’s best friend, and he’s a good friend even though he understands that when faced with Gibby’s bravery and determination, he comes out lacking. There is Becky, the girl who comes from the poor side of town but doesn’t let that define her. While Gibby’s mother comes from money and they live very comfortably in a large house, those around Gibby are not so fortunate. We grow to understand their father William French, and we see his regrets and his disappointments. And though we meet Gabrielle French, Jason and Gibby’s mother, we don’t understand her, and we certainly don’t like her. In some ways, this is a book about men, and we meet all kinds of men. We meet men who are venal and do psychotic, depraved things to others. We also meet men who just try to do the best they can with the cards that they’ve been dealt by fate. And then we are blessed to meet those who do better – who will do anything and everything to make sure that the right things are done, at least to the best of their ability. Hart narrates the story in both first person, so we know Gibby’s thoughts and emotions, and also in third person so we can understand what others are thinking and feeling as the plot progresses. The dual narration gives us a unique insight into many of the forces in the story, and the decision to have Gibby’s narration be first person delineates the two.
This isn’t a book with much humor or one that is read for enjoyment. Rather, it’s a book that grips its readers by the throat and doesn’t let that grip loosen until the final page, when we see a bit of justice. Hart doesn’t tie up all the ends though, and we must consider what the future brings for the characters we’ve come to admire and respect. It’s a story that will linger in your thoughts, and the characters will be long remembered.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.