Names play a big role in The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona. They represent identity, heritage, and belonging for the three men at the heart of this novel. When these men are asked, “Who are you?” They might pause before they give their names because the names on their documents aren’t really who they are. Tilly has been living under an assumed name since the mid 1970s. Elroy was given a name by the members of a commune and was never told who his real father was. Willy was given his name by a German priest after being taken in after his father abandoned him in Germany. The Volunteer tells Tilly’s story, show us how misconceptions and bad decisions can haunt men for the rest of their lives.
Tilly was once called Vollie Frade. Vollie comes from Volunteer, his parents’ nickname for him. Vollie was born late in his parents’ lives. As their only child, the Frades didn’t know what to do with their son once he hit his teenage years. In a fit of pique or rebellion after an argument over buying a fast car, Vollie joins in the army and is shipped out to Vietnam post haste. Vollie has to change his name when he gets pulled into illegal, covert action in Cambodia. All of Vollie’s decisions made sense to him at the time. Why shouldn’t he buy a car with his own money? Why shouldn’t he reenlist? But when Vollie’s father dies and he couldn’t bring himself to go back to Iowa, Vollie becomes Tilly in an effort to completely start over with a new name, even if he has to do it by participating in even more illegal, covert action (stateside this time). Tilly has a complicated biography. It gives a woman at the Veterans Administration fits later on when Tilly’s adopted son signs him up to get medical care and benefits.
There are patterns in The Volunteer, but they can be hard to spot as Tilly, Elroy (Tilly’s adopted son), and Willy’s (Elroy’s biological son) lives play out with eloquent variety. Bad decisions are compounded because each man can’t help but push people away or committing acts of violence or refusing to cooperate at every turn. This sounds bleak—and a lot of this novel is bleak—but there was always the hope of redemption and happiness if only the men can bring themselves to reach out to another. We even get to see a bit of this brief happiness (tragically too brief one instance), which helps leaven the sadness. And it ends with a moment of hope, when Willy literally reaches out to a woman to save her from a terrible accident; we can leave The Volunteer thinking that this tangled, strange family might get things right after three generations. We can also leave the book thinking that, if we can’t have a family with our biological kin, perhaps we can make a new one with people who help fulfill elementary psychological needs.
The Volunteer might strike some people as overlong. There are several stretches where Scibona takes us on tangents that last for many pages, based on relatively small connections to the lives of the three men. There are also passages where Scibona breezes through years of Tilly, Elroy, and Willy’s lives (included one where everything happens in the passive voice). The rest of the book—and Tilly himself—more than made up for it, I think. I found this book to be a fascinating exploration of the male psyche, identity, guilt, makeshift father-son relationships, and much more. Readers who love psychological character studies will enjoy this book. There is so much to talk about in The Volunteer, so I would also recommend this book to book groups who have a taste for tragedy or who like to tease out tricky ethical situations.