Author Pete McGinty’s tough-talking but ultimately sweet novel dwells on the challenging life of a gay WWII hero and the young writer whose future he impacts.
The first part of the book describes Henry “Hank” Cummings’ experiences as a private in the Army who discovers love with a fellow soldier. After officers learn of his sexual orientation, Hank is stripped of the medals awarded for helping rescue crewmates when his bomber crash-landed in Guam. Scarred and humiliated, Hank retreats into writing short stories, then novels, until his wife finally ends their empty marriage. When his troubled mother commits suicide and his sister dies of cancer, Hank is alone in rural Ohio in 1973.
The second section describes the summer of 1973 from the perspective of 13-year-old Jonny, whose intense interest in Hank, along with the intrusive curiosity of his friends, brings the two face-to-face in an exchange that will, in the book’s third and final section, told from grown-up Jonathan’s perspective, turn out to deeply shape the young man’s life. Thirty years after their first meeting, Jonathan takes over Hank’s literary estate and writes the life story of this man he so deeply respects.
This shared story of a man who endures and another who dreams is told in clipped, easy prose that moves swiftly, even when the action seems static. Dialogue is vivid, distinct, and true to the vocabulary of young boys, as well as to the language of the time-period around disability and sexuality. The main characters are developed with vivid detail, like Hank’s learning to type with a few remaining fingers (one of many injuries suffered in the bomber crash), or Jonny’s knuckleball.
McGinty is polished at scenes of interpersonal conflict and verbal sparring. The novel’s larger arc leans heavily on a heroic summation of Hank’s life that pushes readers toward conclusions, but overall, this is an engaging portrait of two lives filled with human longing and the costs of being different.