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'Shrapnel': It's not just flying metal that can wound

By James E. Casto

"Shrapnel." By Marie Manilla. River City Publishing. 335 pages. $26.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2010, Marie Manilla, a Huntington native who teaches creative writing at Marshall University, published an outstanding collection of short stories, "Still Life With Plums." Now she has published an equally outstanding first novel.

Judging from its title, a reader picking up a copy of "Shrapnel" might think it's a war novel. It's not. It offers no heated exchange of gunfire, no battlefield heroics. Instead, Manilla's novel explores the legacy of war as seen in three generations of men from the Butler family -- Bing Butler, his late son Roger and his grandson Brian.

Webster defines shrapnel as "fragments thrown out by an exploding bomb or shell." In the heat of battle, those flying fragments of hot metal can easily kill or maim. Manilla's unspoken premise in "Shrapnel" is that cruel and thoughtless words and attitudes can wound just as deeply as any bomb or shell.

In the novel's opening pages, the reader is introduced to 77-year-old Bing Butler, a widower who has reluctantly decided he can no longer safely live on his own, that the time has come when he must sell his home and move in with his daughter.

A World War II veteran and vocal patriot, Bing is a die-hard right-wing type who wants nothing to do with blacks, Latinos or gays. He's not much of a joiner, but he'd be right at home in the front row at a tea party rally.

In contrast, his daughter Susie is a feminist with deeply held antiwar views. Their sharp differences sparked lots of angry shouting when she was a teenager still living at home. And while Bing appreciates his daughter's invitation to come live with her and her family, he's by no means looking forward to it.

What's worse, accepting her invitation means packing up and moving from his beloved Texas to godforsaken West Virginia, of all places. Bing doesn't know much about West Virginia, but what he does know he doesn't like. How the heck can Susie be happy in a place where people talk funny, live in shanties and don't wear shoes?

Arriving in Huntington, where Susie and her husband, Glen, teach at Marshall, he finds they have a handsome home in a nice neighborhood. "There's the phone," says Glen, "so you can call your buddies back home and tell them we have indoor plumbing."

Bing sells off most of his possessions at a hectic yard sale before departing for West Virginia, but among the things he holds on to is a stack of letters from his son Roger, who was killed in Vietnam. And, too, he holds on to a terrible secret. Roger didn't want to join the Army, but did so only after his father bullied him into it. Thus, Bing feels that he, not a Viet Cong sniper, was responsible for Roger's death.

And as the days go by, Bing learns another secret -- Susie's young son Brian is planning to sneak off and join the Army. The boy confides in him, but begs him not to tell his mother. Bing promises he won't betray the boy. But he remembers how Roger's death broke his mother's heart. Can he keep the boy's secret and risk subjecting Susie to the same devastating grief that consumed her mother?

Ultimately, Bing's move to West Virginia becomes a voyage of discovery. He learns a great deal about himself, his family and others as well. He learns, for example, that despite his lifelong homophobia, the lesbian who lives next door to Susie and Glen can be a good friend (and a great cook). And he learns too the value of listening to other people, even when you disagree with them.

Even though the novel deals with weighty themes, it's nonetheless laced with comic moments. Consider, for example, how Bing, on his way to Frank's Barber Shop on Fourth Avenue for a badly needed haircut, gets kidnapped by a bunch of drunks who hustle him off to the dog track at Cross Lanes. (Local readers will enjoy coming upon the several real places Manilla tucks into her narrative.)

The publisher's blurb for "Shrapnel" describes it as "at times funny and at other times frightening -- and frighteningly honest." And that it is.

It's also more evidence of Manilla's extraordinary talent as a writer. Apparently the editors at one of the book industry's best-known publishing houses, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, also recognize that talent. They've purchased her next novel, "The Patron Saint of Ugly," also set in West Virginia, and have scheduled it for a spring 2014 release.

The release of "Shrapnel" will be celebrated at a book launch party and autographing session from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 14 at Empire Books, in Huntington's Pullman Square. And the author will sign copies again from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 22 at Taylor Books.

"Shrapnel" is also available from Amazon.com and directly from the publisher at sales@rivercitypublishing.com.

James E. Casto, a retired Huntington newspaperman, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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