Canned Tuna is two inter-leaved novellas—one with injured Viet vet Nico in Boise in the late 60’s, the other with haunted teenager Milo, who works in a fish cannery in Astoria, Oregon in the early 60’s. Maybe I should say spoiler alert—and I don’t know what my experience of the book would have been if I hadn’t read this on the review copy’s back cover—but Milo’s story is an altered past he’s experiencing in Vietnam after being injured. Both stories are of the coming-of-age model, and also reflect on the entire nation’s coming of age, juxtaposing the 60’s spirit with the cruelty and corruption that was the war in Vietnam
To recreate being a certain age in a certain era takes great skill: getting your facts straight, your feelings appropriate to the time, maybe going back to your own memory but still keeping the perspectives of the characters, which are not necessarily your own. Memmott is the author of several poetry collections, including what I consider one of the top poetry books of our time—The Larger Earth—and I’m pleased and somewhat jealous to say he’s just as accomplished as a novelist.
While the war is central in Nico’s narrative, and appears abstractly in Milo’s hallucinations as well as concretely in the remnants of World War II Fort Stevens where a chunk of his story occurs, love and community are also central themes in the book. Nico is among fellow veterans, gearheads and childhood friends, while Milo has his co-workers and former classmates. Nico is still infatuated with long-time friend Coco, who’s now married to another friend Jesse, while Milo’s attempts to resolve his virginity keep getting interrupted. As Nico is trying to figure out if he wants to, or can, fit back into the same social roles as he had before ‘Nam, Milo is trying to find his bearing with the friends around him, buffeted by the unexplainable fear he keeps encountering.
As Milo’s world is to a large extent pre-war—the coming war present inside Milo as well as represented by Fort Stevens—we’re viewing the boy becoming a man. Milo has a community, a job, a serious girlfriend, but the pieces won’t or can’t come together. While Nico and his veteran friends are post-war, many of the people and places he interacts with live as if the war didn’t happen. Memmott subtly shows the effects of Nico being in two worlds, of having made a quantum shift in personal experience, but being back among those who haven’t had to make that shift. Similarly the injured Milo in Vietnam imbues his hallucinatory past with the fear and dread of war, things none of his friends can see or hear.
Both stories work toward a final conflict, but take different paths getting there. As Milo experiences more uncertainty and darker shadows—including the Hammer Man, with resonances of Twilight Zone and Stephen King—he and friends spend a night at the abandoned fort where personal relationships and natural phenomena take him to the brink. Nico’s political action with his Veterans group brings in the FBI, which, combined with losing his job, and the increased tensions of his relationship with Coco and Jesse, stresses Nico to a crucial decision.
While the novel is set in the past, its subjects are alive and present. Thanks to Memmott’s crisp writing, his attention to detail, and his honesty about the real world, there’s no nostalgia here. We live today with increasing U.S. militarism, veterans scarred by the killing they’ve been trained for and perhaps committed, and the continuing difficulties of young people—if not all of us—adjusting to a leaner, meaner world. Sadly, the sense of community that’s a key element in this novel keeps getting harder to find today. While the world of Canned Tuna contains glimmers of hope, Memmott offers no answers: we can learn from our own and others’ past mistakes, but sometimes we can’t learn fast enough, sometimes the tsunami of fate is unavoidable.
For four decades, dan raphael's been active in the Northwest as poet, performer, editor and reading host. His 21st poetry collection, Manything, is now available from Unlikely Books. Current poems appear in Caliban, Red Fez, Scarlet Leaf and S/Word. dan recommends supporting KBOO-FM, where most Wednesdays he writes and records a poem for The KBOO Evening News.