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“Aftershock: A Novel” By: George H. Wolfe

“Aftershock: A Novel”

Author: George H. Wolfe

Publisher: Livingston Press

Pages: 392

Price: $19.95 (Trade Paper)

Novel Depicts Struggles of WWII Vets on GI Bill Adjusting to Campus Life

 We are often told that our veterans of the Afghan War, the Iraq War and, going back a ways, the Vietnam War, suffer from PTSD in startling and dismayingly large numbers, and it is also a kind of truism that returning soldiers and sailors from WWII somehow did not suffer these emotional catastrophes. We think of that generation, “the greatest generation,” as returning, marrying or reuniting with their stranger brides, getting a job, buying a house in the suburbs and rarely, sometimes never, speaking of what they went through in the Pacific or in the European campaign.

The premise of “Aftershock” is, of course, that that scenario is false, in fact impossible.

George Wolfe, who served as a nuclear weapons officer on board a destroyer in the Vietnam War and who would later write a script for a documentary on the GI Bill (among others), has combined these areas of expertise with his intimate knowledge of the UA campus, where he taught for decades.

“Aftershock” tells the story of a group of vets, Army, Navy and Marines, who arrive here after the war to take advantage of the rights they have earned.

These men, many of whom are first generation college students and often not Southerners, have a heap of adjusting to do.

Dante Larocca, from Brooklyn, is a magnificent, nearly perfect, “fish out of water.”

He must learn to navigate college and the cultural labyrinth that is Dixie in 1945. Larocca has registered in the school of architecture, which Wolfe has awarded UA, and will study under a demanding, eccentric professor with a magnificent studio in Woods Hall, which Dante rightly admires for its elegance, “solidity and balance.”

Professor Sydney Greene is a fearsome character but Larocca is undaunted. An onlooker comments: "you shoot bazookas and flamethrowers at a guy for three or four years and he loses his fear of a mere professor—no matter how much influence he wields in your life."

Dante is coarse and unpolished. He is talented (having been taught by his sculptor grandfather), but plagued with nightmares of bloody fighting in Europe and the death of his best friend.

David Cohen has come to Tuscaloosa to study fiction writing with the famous Hudson Strode. Cohen, serving aboard a destroyer, experienced the loss of his ship and many shipmates in a kamikaze attack. Having lost an arm, he is visibly wounded, but he’s also grievously wounded emotionally.

There are several ex-Marines—violent and colorful characters who serve as a kind of comic relief, barely making their grades and brawling in the unlicensed beer halls.

An anomaly of a sort is Tim Fletcher, a brilliant young physicist who worked on The Bomb. A sensitive fellow, he’s filled with guilt over Hiroshima and fear of what the future holds in a world full of nuclear weapons.

Like a growing number of Americans, scientists and lay people, he is coming to grips with the shift of the Soviet Union from ally to adversary.

In a stroke of genius, Wolfe also has created Evelyn Curtis, a local girl who contributed to the war effort as a WASP—a Women’s Army Service Pilot. WASPs flew new planes from the factories to the fields or ports where they were wanted, usually to be shipped overseas.

She is beautiful, whip-smart, a brilliant pilot, but herself not immune from loss and grief. Not all the women service pilots survived, ferrying those new, untested aircraft.

Evelyn wants to be a commercial, professional pilot with Pan Am and Wolfe reminds us of how narrow the options were for women in almost any profession in 1945.

All these vets, carrying their individual emotional traumas, must navigate their course work, the 1945 South, their reintroduction into the world of American social and sexual life. They relate best to one another, of course, and only with difficulty to those who did not serve.

In a wonderful scene at registration time in Foster Auditorium, through fraud, finesse and force they circumvent the university’s best efforts at queuing up.

The indignities of registration lines in Foster Auditorium are not for them! In the military they had stood in lines for hours—no more!

This is Wolfe’s first novel and it is amazing in its power. Each character is distinct and his or her pain is palpable, sometimes approaching heartbreaking. Campus life in 1945-46 is well drawn; the flashbacks to scenes of battle in burning tank or sinking ship are well done and not out of balance with the main story, the terrors of the present.

The unrelenting stress on these WWII vets, the ones who never talked about the war, is enough to make you weep. Maybe our fathers and grandfathers never spoke of their horrors because they couldn’t stand to relive them and knew we weren’t strong enough to hear them.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.