Daniel Buckman has been praised for his stunning prose and sharp, riveting portrayals of the lives of American veterans in the wake of this country's twentieth-century wars. Morning Dark is the story of three generations of men from Watega County, Illinois, each pursued by the memories of the battles they fought and the wars they still dream of.
Big Walt Michalski is a decorated World War II veteran who built a plumbing empire in his hometown only to have his drunk, Vietnam-vet son, Walt, fritter away his inheritance, and the family business, on drugs and a series of dead-end marriages. Tom Jane, Walt's nephew and Big Walt's grandson, is a thirty-year-old career marine just out of the service with a dishonorable discharge. When Walt lets the memories of his failed life get the better of him, he takes off, intent on finding again the one place he ever felt free: outside the disappointed glare of Big Walt. But when he gets where he's going, he finds himself all too easily drawn back into a harrowing situation in which the life he's running from may turn out to be his only chance for salvation.
Daniel Buckman memorializes a lost class of American men who go to war and come home to work, men who exist on the fringes of the society they once risked their lives to protect. Haunting and startling, Morning Dark is a remarkable literary achievement from a talented young writer.
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About the Author
Daniel Buckman served as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Morning Dark is his third novel.
DANIEL BUCKMAN served as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Because the Rain is his fourth novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Daniel Buckman
PicadorCopyright © 2003 Daniel Buckman
All rights reserved.
When the old man shot the dog, Walt was not more than five and the November rains bore into the cut fields and the mud jumped as if exploding. The sky sank low and dark and Watega River flooded from the rain and rose back into the bare trees. The morning was fifty years ago, and every autumn Walt swore the rain fell black and filled the furrow lines with murky water, even if his father told him it did not.
The big color always wins and stains the rest, he said, holding the dog by the collar while it howled and snapped air, then put the barrel of the .45 to its head and pulled the trigger, the bullet passing straight through and nicking a hickory root. The dog sagged at the neck and his father kicked the heap into a hole he'd dug that morning before the clouds hooded the country. You better know what to do about things that are too useless for life, he said, looking at Walt and the teeth marks that would scar his cheek. Walt knew the rain was dark, because it turned the silver maples black and darkened the mud between the slanting weeds and made the railroad ties on the berm above the field look charred by fire. He told his father he was wrong. The old man shook his head and took up the shovel from the dirt pile. The rain's clear and the sky's black, he said. Only an idiot worries about this shit longer than a second.
It was not November and the night sank hot and windless. He drove his pickup along 113 and watched the swollen river between the roadside trees, and the dark country smelled green like cornstalks and oak leaves if he forgot the truck exhaust. The sky looked the way it did when he knew November was coming with the black rain, the cloud cover seamless and smeared perfectly between the long horizons where hedgerows stood darker than the night. He left the windows open and drove fast ahead of the gathering storm and held down the bag of pictures on the bench seat. They were a hundred prints of Vietnam. He'd taken them with a camera he'd bought three months ago at Walgreens, the day his nephew Tommy came home from the army with bad paper after eleven years. "I'm taking you back and paying for everything," Tommy'd told him. "All you got to do is live without a cigarette for the sixteen-hour flight. I want you to have a good goddamned time in a place where you saw people blowed away." Walt had gotten wet-eyed and told Tommy he loved him like a son. He'd kept quiet about how the black rain haunted him more than Vietnam ever did.
The overcast was leaden when the old man drove them out of the quarry woods, scowling the way he did after he'd spent all morning in a tree stand and there were no deer to shoot. Walt's son, Teddy, sat between them and took sips off the old man's coffee. He was a ten-year-old boy who got confused telling time, and spelled words the way they sounded. He had brown eyes that never blinked, soft but alert. The old man patted the boy's small thigh and then pointed at Walt. He rolled his blue eyes before he talked.
I told him you can't get drunk and chase whores the night before a hunt, he said. The deer will smell the foulness like hot garbage. Next time we'll leave him to his whores.
Teddy's ears were bright red from the cold. He smiled at the old man for letting him finish his coffee.
Walt let his father have this. He was too hungover for a fight. He'd been out with Ricky Dugan and Gene Tufty at the Web on Sherman Street. Three crying fuckups ten years home from Vietnam and out partying without a thing to celebrate. The Web was full of them, all lined along the bar, admitting they were alcoholics but saying they sure liked the taste. They blamed everything on Vietnam because they could. Nobody called them out except World War II veterans like the old man. He'd gotten the Medal of Honor after jumping into Normandy with the Eighty-second Airborne and taking out two German .88's with rifle grenades. They drank at the VFW across the street and wouldn't have any of it.
The sky turned black when the old man drove from the woods and hit the gravel road. The rain fell in heavy drops. He was done riding Walt and spat tobacco out the window and wiped the juice from his lips with his Carhartt sleeve. Teddy watched the rain turn the trees black. The old man was sad in the way he got when he looked at the boy after he ran the bases backward in a softball game and smiled like he'd done something. Walt dry-heaved and leaned his cheek against the cold window.
Teddy grabbed the old man's veiny wrist and pointed at the thicket. It ran from the bar ditch back to the woods. He was alive like a dog. The old man stopped the truck. Two deer stood in the rain, a ten-point buck and a spiker. The old man looked at Walt with his teeth clenched.
You going to load that weapon and hunt some deer with your boy? he said.
Walt looked at the old man and his brown-stained teeth. His blue eyes begged Walt to belt him. Teddy was already climbing over Walt and opening the door, so Walt followed, loading the double-barreled shotgun on his way out. Sandwich bags full of bread crusts blew from the truck into the wet weeds. Most days, Walt stopped remembering here. He pretended that he'd been standing in the open door for twenty years, watching the bags scuttle across the gravel.
The rain dripped off Teddy's gun barrel. He'd left his orange hunting hat in the truck and the rain straightened the curl in his hair. They ran through the dead leaves after the deer. Teddy stopped in the ditch water past his thighs and shouldered the shotgun. He aimed with both eyes, the way the old man had taught him, but the deer wheeled and reared and leapt a fallen hackberry. The spiker lost his footing in the mud and reeled wildly before balancing and charging into the thicket behind the buck.
Teddy lowered his weapon and blew cold before splashing out of the ditch water. His eyes tremored. He ran off into the pines like a dog not sure of where the scent was leading him. Walt lagged behind and puked twice into the mud. He forgot Teddy couldn't write his own name and followed him as if he were the old man. They separated and swept through the pines in two half circles and kept the tracks between them and drove the deer into the thicket.
Walt saw the buck's rack brushing the low-hanging branches. He even saw his breath rising into the mist like smoke off a cigarette. He wanted to get this done and go home and get drunk all over again while the cold rain iced the windows. He shouldered the shotgun and squeezed the trigger and the buck fell in a heap. He thumbed the safety and moved to the kill. The old man's truck shut down and Walt heard him cussing his way through the thicket.
Walt came to the pine tree and saw Teddy head-shot and dead without even looking. His forehead was tore open and the rain dripped with the blood along his cheeks. Walt went cold. He never wanted to see anything again. He put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger, but the safety was locked. The old man was looking down at him when he looked up. The wad of Levi Garrett bulged from his cheek.
Go on, you son of a bitch, he said. Go right the hell on.
Walt stood grinning and jet-lagged in the doorway of Jarhead's. The rain blew inside and wetted the dirty floor tiles and floated a cigarette butt. He took the Vietnam trip pictures from under his T-shirt. Out in the street, the rain beat against the car windows in tiny squalls and boiled the gutter puddles, the reflected streetlight reeled and broke, and the rain slashed through the foundry smoke twisting from the chimney across the river.
"Back in the world," he said.
Red Ruell wiped the beer spill and cigarette ash off the bar and pushed the peanut shells into the bowl with his hand. The USMC globe and anchor was mottled on his bicep. His snarled hair was gray. Walt closed the door, stomped the rain from his boots, and waited for the bar to dry before setting down the pictures. Larry Anderson dragged on his Winston and leaned on an elbow to see. The ash fell where Red had cleaned, and Walt looked into his bloodshot eyes.
"You got any ears?" Larry said.
"Put it out," he said.
"I just lit the son of a bitch."
"You want to see them?"
"Did any of them old gooks fuck with you?"
Larry took the cigarette from his mouth. His thumb was swollen from a roofing hammer, the nail flat black. He and Red were Khe Sanh marines and had stood the whole siege, the days when a thousand artillery rounds fell from the hills, and the rockets that came when the dinks tired of humping more shells up the wooded slopes. They talked like the whole thing had happened yesterday. "Hell sucks," they said to each other. "Shit happens, jarhead."
"I'll keep it over here," Larry said.
"Pinch it off."
"I'll see the pictures later."
"I ain't explaining them twice."
"I've seen Vietnam before."
"You won't recognize shit," Walt said.
"I'd know them firebases. I was a grunt. You was just an engineer."
"It was the same Vietnam."
"Bullshit. You was a rider. I was a humper."
Larry turned and watched the rain drive against the neon-lit window. Red held the bar rag and whipped it against his hand. Walt set down the picture, a strip of rutted red dirt with coffee trees growing in the background and the sunlight a burning white.
"You ever thought you'd see that red shit again?" Walt said.
"Jesus Christ," said Red.
"You know what this is?"
Larry snuffed the cigarette and the smoke drifted from his mouth. He and Red studied the print and moved their lips silently. Gio Linh. Con Thien. Maybe it was Camp Carroll. Larry lifted his head and met Walt's eyes in the bar-back mirror. Walt grinned and slapped his back.
"I'll kiss your ass if you can tell me what this is," he said.
"In front of people?"
"Right here on pool league night."
Walt could hear the rain rattling against the metal cisterns. Larry tilted his head and studied the print while Red wiped what he already had cleaned.
"That's a dirt road in Georgia, Walt. I bet you and your nephew went fishing."
"It's Khe Sanh. The airstrip."
"No. I sat seventy-seven days in a bunker by that airstrip. The dust ain't red enough. Me and Red would know because we ate enough of it. Shit, that's where Red got his name — he thinks he's sunburned our first day at Khe Sanh until he shaves and the dust washes off."
"I thought I'd been boiled," Red said.
"The place is just too green," Larry said. "There's so much diesel fuel soaked into the ground that nothing could grow for a hundred years."
Walt jutted his chin across the bar and hit them with another picture. It showed a middle-aged Vietnamese man in a khaki war veteran's uniform. His chest was full of tin medals. He smiled and stood very short beside Walt, with the ruined airstrip behind them. The NVA star glinted from his high-fronted kepi. He looked over the sunglasses he pushed midway down his nose.
"What the hell would Charlie be doing fishing in Georgia?" Walt said.
In the soft white bar light and drifting smoke, they looked down at the print. Larry said "Son of a bitch" twice. Red dropped the bar rag and picked up the remote and hit the mute button, but the TV was already off. He stared at himself in the bar-back mirror.
"God that dink looks old," he said.
Walt shook his head.
"He was a sergeant in the NVA. He runs the vistors' center."
"Jesus," said Red.
"He sees me and Tommy and comes running up and shaking our hands, asking if I'm a Khe Sanh veteran. I tell him no, but my buddies back home lived the whole siege. He says he was a veteran, too. "I in hills," he says, laughing like a happy drunk. "You tell you buddies I in hills.'"
Larry looked at Walt. Then he looked at a picture of the vistors' center, a big stucco building with new air-conditioning units outside. There were shots of an old M60 tank, with the long barrel shadowed on the red ground and young Vietnamese guys filling sandbags to construct a bunker. He looked at Walt again.
"They're turning the place into a dink Gettysburg," he said.
"It's already turned," he said.
"Where are the hard-core gooks?" Larry said.
"Old and talking shit," Walt said.
Larry smiled mean. His dark eyes floated and he held an unlit cigarette.
"They probably can't do much else," he said.
Red and Walt looked into the bar-back mirror at the same time. They saw themselves leaned over the pictures among the ashtrays and beer glasses. Red turned away and tried pocketing his hand with the remote in it. Walt nodded at Red, but Red stared at the floor and let his hand hang.
"Just so they know we kicked their ass," Red said.
"It don't matter," Walt said.
He left the pictures and walked out the door.
The rain and the rain shadows blew through the hooped streetlight and the headlights from passing cars bled slowly in the wet black street. He let the rain clean the tavern smell from his nose, the urine reek if the john door wasn't closed, the men stinking of dog food from the pack lines at General Foods. He hated their booze smell when they got drunk and said "Welcome home, bro" like yesterday the C-130 had left Dong Ha for Da Nang and then the world. He'd spent thirty-three years on a bar stool, smelling their discounted GPC cigarettes while Red Ruell mouthed semper fi when a vet opened a long-neck beer, forever listening to the oldies station from Chicago, which he turned down only for Bears games and when Turner Classic Movies ran Sands of Iwo Jima. He smelled their pepperoni breath during Friday-night happy hour, when Red brought the lingerie models down from Joliet and middle-aged men played barracks grab-ass and talked about a war that back then they couldn't wait to leave. He hated the smell of Red's tobacco juice and how he spat it in a beer can and told you what rank he'd hold if he'd stayed in the marines. "Sergeant major by now, Walt. Probably at the brigade level. I'd of done the full thirty." Sometimes he held his nose against the smells and wished the air would catch fire and consume him first.
He staggered through the rain to his pickup. The truck was left over from the old man's contracting business. Fifteen plumbers became him driving around Watega with a cell phone, waiting to unclog toilets. He drove down Grant Street past the high school and raised his middle finger and the rain danced on the hood.
It was ten o'clock when he got home, and he cut the headlights and pulled into the space between the garages and drank an airplane bottle of Jack Daniel's. He was getting drunk enough to screw his fourth wife, because Patty was a heap naked. He saw sandbags when he looked at her. She squeezed her butt into Wal-Mart blue jeans and went to the great spaces on generic Xanex after splitting a pork lover's pizza with her son Peter, an obese kid who ruined the furniture. He shot back another airplane bottle and opened the door into the rain.
The computer light was splayed blue and yellow against the wet bedroom window. Patty sat up nights chain-e-mailing inspirational writings that had been chain-e-mailed to her. Some had music, flying angels, flowing rivers with water sounds. She e-mailed people so often, they asked her to stop. She filled in boxes with pieces about the importance of family and checked the log to see if they'd read the messages and then cursed when the e-mails were deleted without being opened. The computer pissed Walt off. He'd married her for company, figuring she'd stare at the television while he ranted about the world and used the lines he got off talk radio. She might have hung on every word, but the Internet had ruined that.
He stood in the back door and took off his boots and wiped the rain from his beard. Shep followed him through the kitchen and looked up by his empty food dish, and Walt waved the dog away. He turned on the television and sat down in his wet clothes. The History Channel was rerunning the show about ancient Egypt and spaceships and how the hieroglyphics told you all about the day they'd landed. The sofa arm was loose from Peter's lying back flat and pushing against it with his feet. "The kid's sixteen and he watches The Brady Bunch with focus," he'd told Tommy. "He bent the refrigerator door from hanging off it while he stares inside. He's like fucking dick warts."
The steps creaked when Patty came downstairs. Her shadow moved along the wall and he looked away. He dragged on his cigarette deeply and held his breath and looked over at her upturned nose. She was talking to herself. The smoke hung and she fanned the darkness with a handful of papers.
Excerpted from Morning Dark by Daniel Buckman. Copyright © 2003 Daniel Buckman. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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