Stewart O’Nan’s principal character, Vietnam veteran Larry Markham, is the focus of two plots in two time periods, his wartime experiences told in lengthy flashbacks, and the life he endures twenty years later, with memories, war souvenirs, and a mysterious stalker linking the present with the past. O’Nan’s theme is evident from the start and is repeatedly reinforced throughout his interwoven stories—the lives of Vietnam war veterans are defined by their war years and resolution to their traumas is only possible by, at least symbolically, bringing home all those who died in that conflict.
The Names of the Dead is a detailed, realistic but not descriptive weaving of these two storylines that both parallel and mirror each other in the life of the Markham family leading up to the predictable and inevitable conclusion at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., where Larry and his son finally put to rest the memories that have both psychologically and literally haunted the family on a variety of levels. O’Nan draws his parallels in overt, unmistakable symbols and images: The war dominates Larry’s thoughts, an obsession that is clearly the core of his difficulties with a wife with whom Larry has a remote relationship, symbolically represented by the chest of war souvenirs in his attic that seem more real to him than his wife, child, job, or even his passionless love affair with his neighbor. His tenure in Vietnam is recapitulated in detailed present tense, an obvious literary technique showing Markham’s mind is in two worlds simultaneously. Larry is without his wife in the war; he is abandoned by her physically and emotionally in their Ithaca, New York, community. While in Vietnam, Larry loses his mother; twenty years later, he watches his father lose vitality in the same way. His war years are a series of guerrilla actions in the jungle; in New York, he uses these same tactics to track down and encounter Ronnie Creeley, a fellow veteran Markham cannot remember but who is terrorizing the Markhams in an effort to force Larry ultimately to kill him and end his obsession with the war dead. Creeley clearly represents the forgotten dead of the war, leaving playing cards and photographs of Markham and his lover in intimate, private rooms showing there is no place where Markham can escape from Creeley’s malevolent presence. Throughout this quest to find Creeley, Markham is forced to remember the men he knew in the war, meet each week with his group of disabled veterans, and only by this repeated pattern of remembrance can he solve the cryptic messages from Creeley and ultimately put his own past to rest.
O’Nan’s matter-of-fact style gives his parallel stories a slow, methodical pace in the Realist/Naturalist tradition, laying out the life of a man largely driven by external, controlling forces rather than personal drives or ambitions. As a soldier, Larry Markham is molded by the customs and...
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