John Mort served as an infantryman, often walking point, with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1969-70. He has written several worthy works out of that war experience, including the novel Soldier in Paradise , which won the W.Y. Boyd Award for best military fiction in 1999.
His latest novel, The Illegal (Southeast Missouri State University, 270 pp., $15, paper), is not directly about the Vietnam War, but there is a vividly portrayed Vietnam veteran in the book, a man named Abraham Potts, “a bald irritable black man bound to a wheelchair, ” as Mort describes him.
“I’m a disabled veteran, ” the novel’s main character, Mario Oliveros, says. He goes on to say: “Senor Abraham Potts had reason to be angry, but that did not make him wise.” That is a typical observation from Oliveros, who is always riveting, from the first page until the last. Vietnam veterans are a recurring leitmotif in this novel.Mario Oliveros fully inhabits this book, which often seems less contemporary than post-apocalyptic in tone and content. He is on the run for most of the novel, trying to make it as in illegal in America after being left for dead in the river that separates the United States and Mexico. Through no fault of his own, he is a soldier without a country, dead in Mexico, and not acknowledged to be a person in America.
Our hero battles to find existence and love in the United States, a country that is a mystery to him even though he speaks excellent English and is an educated man. His willingness to do anything to survive, including to wander forty days in the desert wilderness with a toe eaten off by a boar hog, insures that he is not going to fail in America.
His journey shows us the underbelly of the American Dream. And, indeed, sometimes it seems all underbelly. He sleeps under bridges and steals clothes to keep from having to wander naked.
Hogs play a large part in this book, and so does Walmart. In fact, Walmart plays such a large role that the store almost figures as one of the main characters.
Mort does a brilliant job making this book engrossing and often exciting. He is brilliant at creating characters the reader roots for—as well as characters we don’t root for. I was sad when the book ended and I could no longer follow Mario Oliveros’s odyssey.
I’d love to read another novel about him. I wonder how he will do in Canada—yet another mysterious country to figure out. Good luck to him.