In Salvatore Scibona’s novel The Volunteer, a father and son stop for breakfast on the south side of Santa Fe. They eat at a place that’s “little more than a lean-to attached to a gas station and where the green chile tasted tangy and thin before it blew up like kerosene afire in the mouth.”
Scibona’s second novel sings with this type of mutable, potentially explosive detail, with events powered by tiny moments sprinkled across vast landscapes. In the present day, a young boy is abandoned by his father in an international airport. To understand why, we must spiral decades into the past. There, a farm kid from Iowa named Vollie Frade enlists in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Vollie, the volunteer of the book’s title, zigzags through three decades of world history, always living his life on the margins of the action. Captured in Cambodia, he’s held prisoner until his release is secured by a shadowy governmental agency that conscripts him for a secret operation. Vollie perfunctorily accepts an assignment in Queens before fleeing to drive West. He finds a wife, Louisa, and adopts a child, Elroy, on a commune in southern New Mexico before disappearing again. The sins of the father play out through Elroy, who does his own tours in Afghanistan before fathering and eventually leaving his own child.
It is not just the ebb and flow of family dynamics that make their mark on four generations in The Volunteer — both the weight of history and the influence of institutional power are also felt in the family’s losses. Throughout, sensory details provide a through line for Vollie. On his first whiff of piñon smoke at the commune, he realizes, “The smell was never to lose its mythy power of turning whatever the moment into an eternity.”
Scibona comes to Santa Fe on Wednesday, March 27, to read from The Volunteer at St. John’s College. His first novel, The End, was a finalist for the National Book Award. The New Yorker named him one of its “20 Under 40” fiction writers, and his work has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, anO. Henry Award, and a Whiting Award. Currently the director of the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, he is a graduate of both St. John’s College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
He recently reflected that both institutions had made their marks on him. “I learned to read at St. John’s, and I guess I learned to write at Iowa,” he said. Of the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s, in which students read foundational texts of Western civilization, he said, “Everyone who goes there is coming with a mind that wants to consume whole food. That’s the difference. The program is whole food, not processed food, with the bran and the starch and the vitamins and the minerals and the stuff that you can’t digest. Even the fact that it’s not digestible is good for you.” He also pointed to his teachers at Iowa — authors Frank Conroy, Marilynne Robinson, and James Alan McPherson — as enduring influences.
Though Vollie’s trajectory across a variety of American landscapes and world stages provides a crash course in wartime skulduggery, he said, “I feel very strongly in writing a kind of fiction in which the person is in the foreground and the history is in the background.” Vollie’s choices are never subsumed by the historic weight of his experiences, precisely because he is experiencing them all in an ultra-immediate present. “My first understanding is the person and where he comes from and what he hopes for and what he sees and feels and knows, and then what he chooses to do and what is the result of that choice. Those choices, in his case, happen to lead him through a lot of recognizable history.”
That history includes familiar landscapes that take on archetypal meaning in the novel. “New Mexico as a place becomes this spirit land for him. It’s the New Country in the novel, a total change from what he experienced before. He has the opportunity there, for a while, to atone and come into the fold of humanity.”
As Vollie traipses through an ever-changing present, the novel resists becoming one of self-discovery. “He’s not an egoist,” Scibona said. “In fact, he’s kind of an anti-egoist. One of the larger themes of the book is this question of the self, as he sees it, as a screen or an obstacle to get through.” Vollie finds profundity in the elements — in his attachment to air, water, and land. “He’s got a real mythic relationship with water, coming from a farm community and having drank well water as a child. He goes to Vietnam, and after a while he thinks if a person is mostly water, then he’s been drinking mostly Vietnam and North Carolina water so he’s mostly some foreigner now. I try very hard to have those kinds of ideas in physical form.”
Scibona’s father is a Vietnam veteran, and the novel’s most searing scenes of war take place in Khe Sanh amid heavy shelling. “Sometimes in the distance earth and sky would explode in light at no notice,” Scibona writes. “It was nighttime, then for a long moment it was daytime in front of you. Not a rending of the sky and a flash as from lightning, but a world that opened and opened from below, a world with a sun inside it that burst forth from the ground.”
Scibona said it wasn’t until years after the war that his father learned that at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, he had participated in “the largest aerial bombardment in the history of warfare up to that time.” However, the author said, “His ignorance of those larger things also makes possible a kind of knowledge that we, looking through the lens of history, can’t have except through imagination.” Hence Vollie — and Elroy, and Elroy’s son, and every other character in The Volunteer — experiences events through the innocence of the immediate moment, through the glory of granular detail, through the essences of concrete details like piñon smoke and hot green chile.
“That kind of humility is really important for a novelist, just to try to inhabit the fullness of what the character does know.” ◀
▼ Salvatore Scibona reads from and discusses The Volunteer
▼ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 27
▼ Great Hall, St. John’s College, 1160 Camino de Cruz Blanca
▼ No charge; 505-984-6000, sjc.edu/santa-fe/events/lectures