Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699
In a rambling but effective manner, William Howly recalls the story of his odd friend, Arden Quadberry. They first meet by accident. Seeking to punish a nearby black family for what he believes was the savage treatment of a pig, William and another boy, Radcleve, shell the black family’s home with Radcleve’s homemade mortar. The shells, actually batteries, fall short, landing on the house occupied by the Quadberrys. Mr. Quadberry is a history professor and his wife is a musician; their son, Ard, with his Arab nose, saxophone, and mud-caked shoes, is not accepted by the other boys. Sent by his parents to tell the boys to stop the shelling, Ard is nearly blinded on the return trip when Radcleve nonchalantly tosses an M-80 firecracker packed in mud in his direction.
Made uneasy by his own silent complicity in the act as well as by Ard’s strangeness, Howly keeps his distance until their senior year, when Ard joins the school band. As their lives begin to intersect, Howly, the band’s drummer, has the opportunity to observe Ard more closely. Once he enters the band room and comes on Ard and a small, red-faced ninth-grade euphonium player who calls him “Queerberry,” and is beaten for his temerity. At the state championship, held in nearby Jackson, Howly sees a different side of his unusual friend. When Prender, the much-loved band director, is killed en route to Jackson in a head-on crash with an ambulance, Quadberry takes charge. Not only does he direct the others, he plays so brilliantly that the judges applaud, an attractive woman in her thirties walks up to Ard and introduces herself, and the beautiful Lilian, the majorette and third-chair clarinetist who missed the start of the performance because she was drowning her sorrow in two beers, offers Ard both her apologies and herself.
Howly’s band, the Bop Fiends, which includes Ard, becomes well known, able to command twelve hundred dollars a night. Howly’s success is also his undoing, as his loud drum playing soon makes him deaf. Ard goes off to the United States Naval Academy, the only school that wants him, charging Howly with looking after Lilian, who, like Howly, will attend the local college. Six years later, Ard, having given up his saxophone for a much bigger gleaming metal tube, a navy fighter plane, arranges to meet Lilian at the Jackson airbase. He touches down and, without even bothering to deplane, delivers to Lilian, and through her to Howly, this one-size-fits-all message: “I am a dragon. America the beautiful, like you will never know.”
In Vietnam, much the same good technique that had made him so fine a saxophonist makes him a successful fighter pilot, flying escort for B-52’s on bombing missions. Immediately after downing his first enemy plane, killing its pilot, Ard’s luck changes. Hit by a ground missile, he flies back to sea, ejects, and lands right on the carrier’s flight deck. He spends a month recovering from a back injury. Returning to action, his plane fails on takeoff and drops off the end of the carrier’s deck into the ocean. Again he ejects, this time under water, after waiting for the ship to pass over him. Again he hurts his back, this time so severely as to preclude his ever flying or playing again.
Sometime later, Lilian, now an airline stewardess, dies when a hijacker’s inept bomb explodes a few miles off the Cuban coast. Two weeks after the memorial service, the handicapped and previously abstemious Quadberry returns home to Clinton, drunk and smoking a cigar. Howly is there to greet him and to tell him of Lilian’s death. His mother shows up and his father, who had opposed Ard’s participation in the war, is waiting in the car. Seven months later, Ard calls Howly, who now lives with Lilian’s younger sister, Edith, to ask whether he should undergo a new surgical procedure that has a 75 percent chance of curing him, but a 25 percent chance of killing him. Howly tells him to trust his luck and have the operation. Quadberry does and dies, his luck having run out.
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