Friday, January 22, 2010

Get Out of the Way

Every so often, if a reader is lucky, along comes a book that strikes really close to home because it centers around one of the reader’s own life experiences. Get Out of the Way, a new novel set in the late 1960s when the military draft that provided fresh soldiers for the battlefields of Viet Nam was reaching its peak, is one of those books for me. Because author Daniel Dinges uses historical events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy to mark what was happening in America during Tom Daniels’ Army basic training – two tragedies that occurred during my own 1968 training – I found myself closely identifying with young Tom Daniels and his confusion about the war in Viet Nam.

Tom Daniels does not have many options to choose from in early 1968. For almost two years he has avoided the draft by claiming a student deferment despite the fact that he drops his college classes not long after he signs up for them so that he can find fulltime work. His scam works because, by the time the draft board has processed the paperwork needed to cancel his student deferment, Tom has registered for a new semester of classes and the cycle begins again. Timing is everything - but now the board has figured out Tom Daniels and he needs a new plan. He is in good physical condition, he is not homosexual, he does not want to become a fulltime college student, and running for the Canadian border is not something he would ever consider. So what is he to do?

What Tom decides to do will shock those who know him and, at the same time, arouse the suspicions of his local draft board. He volunteers for the next list, figuring that since he is older and better educated than the average inductee, he will be able to snag a noncombat position for himself among the thousands of clerks and administrators who support the combat troops. He is so confident he can pull it off that he is willing to gamble his life in the effort.

Tom Daniels is a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of young men who experienced exactly the same thing he faced in 1968. What Daniel Dinges describes about the life-changing decision forced upon Tom Daniels, and about his experiences in the U.S. military, apply to the countless thousands who experienced the same in the real world. Get Out of the Way is a rather simplistic history lesson covering a volatile period in American history because it is told entirely through the eyes of a young man confronted by the politics that might cost him his life. He is not a sophisticated person; he is the average American male fresh out of high school and wondering what comes next. No matter how they may have resolved the issue of Viet Nam for themselves, male readers who were around in the late 1960s will recognize a little of themselves in Tom Daniels.

Get Out of the Way suffers a bit in that Tom Daniels is the only character in the book that is near to being a fully developed one. The supporting cast is defined only in terms of its interaction with Tom and, consequently, those characters do not become quite real to the reader. I found myself wanting to know more about Tom’s parents, his brother, the young women in his life and some of the soldiers he met during his two years in the Army because knowing more about those characters would have given me a better understanding of Tom himself.

Readers of a certain age, those who were there, will find themselves revisiting old memories as they read Get Out of the Way. Younger readers will come away from the book with a better understanding of the life or death situation their very young fathers and grandfathers faced when confronted by such an unpopular war. The decisions those young men made went a long way in determining whom they would become or if they would survive to old age.

Rated at: 3.5

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