Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

This gritty, short novel tells the story of a young Marine, freshly returned from Afghanistan, whose life is gradually unraveling due partly to modern culture and partly to circumstances beyond his control.

Travis Stephenson is the oldest son of the Dean Stephenson, former NFL player with the Green Bay Packers. When his father began grooming him for a potential career as an football player, Travis wanted no part of it and quit the game. Fresh out of high school, he enlisted in the Marines, and after boot camp was sent overseas to Afghanistan. Now on leave and back in his hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, Travis is struggling to assimilate back into American society. He arrives home trying to cope with his girlfriend, Paige Manning, having dumped him and taken up with his brother Ryan, Ryan having taken over his car, his parents crumbling relationship and the death of his best friend and fellow Marine, Charlie Sweeney, in Afghanistan. Of all of these things, it is Charlie's death that is the most troubling for Travis who is experiencing nightmares and hallucinations, and tremendous guilt over Charlie's death.

Things appear to be going all downhill until one night Travis stumbles into a bar and runs into a former schoolmate, Harper Gray. Harper and Travis do not have a good history mainly because in Grade 8 Travis told everyone lies about her and permanently ruined her reputation. Although Harper at first rejects Travis, a sort of cautious friendship develops between the two. Harper seems to recognize that Travis is struggling and needs some companionship. What Harper offers Travis however, is very different from what ex-girlfriend Paige has offered and continues to offer; the focus is on friendship and not sexual encounters. This is a change for Travis, who doesn't understand how to proceed in such a relationship. Harper takes Travis to the beach at night to watch and help sea turtles hatch, they go to a movie, and have dinner at a pirate adventure dinner theatre. She accompanies Travis to Charlie's memorial and also spends time with his Marine buddies. Harper offers Travis a chance at a meaningful relationship; Paige is about hook-ups. It is Harper's caring concern that provides a mooring for Travis to begin to heal the hurt he has in his life, and he wisely takes hold of it.

Something Like Normal is mostly about a young Marine's battle with post traumatic stress disorder. Not only Travis, but some of his Marine buddies also exhibit symptoms and Doller uses all of these characters to educate her readers on the disorder which is quite common in soldiers returning from combat duty in Afghanistan. At first Travis is very reluctant to seek out help. He even walks out a veteran's clinic after finding a picture of himself and his company in a magazine.
That Marine right there in the magazine doesn't belong here -- at a veteran's clinic with old guys and liars addicted to prescription painkillers. That Marine is hard. That Marine is tough. That Marine is not crazy.
This novel also provides an interesting opportunity to discuss the hook-up culture which plays out extensively in the novel. Doller's work makes a strong statement about the banality and emptiness of the hook-up culture in North America. Travis and Paige had an open relationship when they were "together", often sleeping with other people. It's no surprise then when Travis goes off to Afghanistan that Paige dumps Travis and has moved on to his brother Ryan. But Paige isn't faithful to Ryan either; she repeatedly hooks up with Travis when he's home again.
"So let me get this straight," I say. "You hook up with my brother behind my back and now you want me to do the same to him?"
She flicks her ice-blue eyes toward the night sky. "It's not like it means anything."
Somewhere in the recesses of my beer-soaked consciousness, I think this is meant to hurt me, but it doesn't. When I think about what Paige and I have had, love has never entered into it. "That's so messed up. You know that, right?"
Travis agrees to these encounters even though they are empty and don't mean anything to him or to Paige. He realizes that he does this only because he can. When he questions her motives, she tells him "It's only sex, Travis." Later on in the novel, Travis learns that Paige expected him to love her and try to win her back from Ryan, even though she had no intention of loving him. Their entire relationship is not based on any sort of mutual respect or regard; instead it is manipulative and indifferent, even destructive.

While both Paige and Travis are remarkably self-centered, because Travis has been developing a real friendship with Harper, he comes to the realization that his relationship with her is much more satisfying in the end, than the no-commitment, free sex thing he had with Paige. Travis also begins to recognize that Harper brings out the best in him, and he realizes this is what he truly wants.

The major strength in Something Like Normal is the superb development of all the major characters. Doller manages to flesh out each character from many angles making them interesting while creating characters that evoke strong emotions. Harper is a breath of fresh air with her straightforward approach to life. Travis is more complicated because he is dealing with many issues at once. Although he appears to be self-centered and a player, he is also caring and supportive of his mother, encouraging her to no longer be a doormat, but to stand up to his father.

Having said all this, Something Like Normal is definitely a book with a mature theme, a great deal of sexual content and profane language. I would like to see Doller write a sequel, catching us up on Travis and Harper, two years later.

Book Details:
Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
New York: Bloomsbury
214 pp.

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