Style and Technique
Along with the stories about Big Bertha, Mason uses details of work and setting to describe Donald’s alienation and the resulting problems for his family. Although Donald initially seems able to cope with the aftermath of war, he works near his home at a job related to construction, moving and stacking lumber in neat piles. Soon, however, a destructive act costs him this job, and he also destroys a car by ramming it into a Civil War statue near the courthouse. Such an “accident” may, in fact, be a wordless but highly deliberate protest against the general horrors of war and the specific practice of publicly honoring the veterans of an earlier war while largely ignoring those of the Vietnam conflict.
Soon Donald’s job itself becomes destructive. Operating a huge mining machine, he strips away vegetation and topsoil and leaves behind barren land. Donald himself compares this strip-mining operation to the destruction of Vietnam, and he notes that in moving the Kentucky earth, he keeps hunting for tunnels like those in which the Viet Cong hid. Thus, in this destructive job that takes him away from home, Donald seems to be reliving his experiences far away in Vietnam. On his brief visits home (described as periods of rest and recreation), he tries desperately to be a normal husband and father. Again and again, however, he returns to Muhlenberg County and reenacts the grim drama that has no concluding act. Occasionally Donald praises work of the mining companies to reclaim and reforest land, but such reclamation of his own psyche is still pending.
If Donald’s efforts to return home from war recall those of Ulysses, Jeannette displays some of the fidelity of Penelope. She listens patiently to Donald’s confused accounts of battle and pursues her job as literal homemaker. Capable and self-reliant (like most of Mason’s female characters), she tries to recreate home by cooking meals that they can all share as a family, even when her main ingredients are bought with food stamps. After Donald leaves for the hospital, Jeannette’s efforts are redirected. As her own home breaks further apart, she works as a server at the ironically named Fred’s Family Restaurant. As she waits on families, she also waits for Donald to return so her own reunited family can eat there.