All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

on August 9, 2017

The Reason You’re Alive
Matthew Quick
Picador
2017, 226p
Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

After sixty-eight-year-old David Granger crashes his BMW, medical tests reveal a brain tumor that he readily attributes to his wartime Agent Orange exposure. He wakes up from surgery repeating a name no one in his civilian life has ever heard – that of a Native American soldier whom he was once ordered to discipline. David decides to return something precious he long ago stole from the man he now calls Clayton Fire Bear. It might be the only way to find closure in a world increasingly at odds with the one he served to protect. It might also help him finally recover from his wife’s untimely demise.

As David confronts his past to salvage his present, a poignant portrait emerges: that of an opinionated and goodhearted American patriot fighting like hell to stay true to his red, white, and blue heart, even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand. Hanging in the balance are Granger’s distant art-dealing son, Hank; his adoring seven-year-old granddaughter, Ella; and his best friend, Sue, a Vietnamese-American who respects David’s fearless sincerity.

Through the controversial, wrenching, and wildly honest David Granger, Matthew Quick offers a no-nonsense but ultimately hopeful view of America’s polarized psyche. By turns irascible and hilarious, insightful and inconvenient, David is a complex, wounded, honorable, and ultimately loving man. The Reason You’re Alive examines how the secrets and debts we carry from our past define us; it also challenges us to look beyond our own prejudices and search for the good in our supposed enemies.

I’ve had a few days off from writing reviews because I’ve been sick and when I sat down to do this one, I thought to myself that I really didn’t pick an easy one to tackle. This is a really, really difficult book to talk about and define. To be honest, it’s even hard to express whether or not I liked it.

I did. I think I did. I appreciated quite a bit of it but at the same time, it’s also very jarring. The protagonist, David Granger is a Vietnam veteran who, according to him, did a lot of savage killing and saw and did terrible things during that conflict. He talks a lot about “buying the bullet”, a military term which basically means you’ve accepted that you’re going to die. How it happens isn’t really important. Believe that it will happen and it will. It’ll find you, somehow. David isn’t ready for that yet but he acknowledges that upon waking from his operation that something he did in Vietnam still haunts him and perhaps the time has come for reparation.

David has a lot of offensive views and terms for people. He’s what you would probably describe as a stereotypical gun toting Republican redneck but he’s also quite wealthy, having done very well for himself in a career in banking after he returned from the war. He constantly horrifies and angers his son Hugh, a liberal leftie who married a European woman and considers himself tolerant and embracing of people of all walks of life. David recounts several instances where Hugh has been horrified at his racist father….

….but is David really a racist? That’s one of the questions that the book poses. David is offensive, certainly. He stereotypes people as well, makes snap judgements and is horrifically politically incorrect. He refers to his closest friend Sue as “genetically Vietnamese” because she was adopted and raised by American parents after the war. But as the narrative unfolds it’s clear that he possesses a wide variety of interactions with people and is accepted by those of many different cultures and backgrounds. He comes across as far more able to converse with and relate to people than Hugh is, despite the differences is their values and opinions. David is abrasive to be sure – he says what he thinks and really possesses no filter. At times I was honestly horrified at some of the things he said but there were other times when he really surprised me with thoughtful and insightful opinions and observations. It’s clear he’s very intelligent and some of his observations are also bitingly funny.

Respect for those who have served and are serving is a big thing for Americans, more so than it is here. They’re much more vocal about thanking people for their service when they meet current or ex-military people and David has a lot to say on military life and culture particularly with integrating back into society. There are people that can’t do it, he witnesses several people who go down the paths of drugs and destruction but David himself single-mindedly applied himself to becoming something. His father was also a veteran (of WWII) and he talks about how they connected as men and soldiers after he returned from serving in Vietnam, how he understood his father much better after he’d served in a war. Hugh, David’s son hasn’t served and I think that David feel some of the disconnect comes from the fact that Hugh could never really understand the things he has seen, done, experienced. Likewise he cannot relate to a lot of Hugh’s life with his foreign wife, although he does adore his granddaughter.

David loved his late wife and his thoughts on her show a compassionate human who is capable of deep feeling. In fact the parts where David talked about his wife and their story were some of the most beautiful parts of the novel. Even as he realises and laments his wrongs, David embraces their time together, the way that he felt for her and the ways in which he did help her. When he decides that he must go on a road trip and confront the man he wronged in Vietnam, which is both surprising and gifts him something remarkable that helps him with a bit of his own peace.

As much as this is an interesting book in today’s climate there are times when I felt like the struggle of David was a bit too much. Ignore the words and he’s a man of diverse friendships, to the surprise of Hugh, who despite his ‘liberal views’ seems fully entrenched in a white world with white friends and a fear of the unknown. However at times the rhetoric made it hard to embrace David’s seemingly diverse lifestyle of black brothers, gay spin instructors and genetically Vietnamese surrogate daughters. This book is clever – it seems to be encouraging people to look beyond the words and examine the actions. David says all the wrong things but makes all the right moves. Hugh says all the right things but doesn’t really seem to back it up. But sometimes? The words are hard to ignore.

The PTSD and soldier camaraderie and connection are wonderfully done and really help flesh this story and the character of David out and I actually found the mystery of what David had done to Fire Bear and his journey to repair the damage really quite engaging. The result was surprising and heart warming as well, both for David and me!

All in all this is a hard book to judge but I think it’s cleverly done. I found myself liking David, despite a lot of his internal narrative, despite thinking that I wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean that I was okay with a lot of what he was saying either, so it was a bit of a struggle! Ultimately though, David’s story was interesting enough to keep me invested – mostly the personal stuff, his struggle to connect with Hugh and keep his granddaughter in his life. Some of his methods were a bit off the wall but I could see why he was trying to do these things.

7/10

Book #132 of 2017

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