Set in the ’60s, Maureen Hogan Lutz’s newest novel, Hero Can I Be, is the fast-paced story of James “Jamie” Vincent Corrigan, “a tall redhead with a hair-trigger temper” whose troubled yet street-smart New York City upbringing by Irish Catholic immigrant parents shapes him into the hero he becomes, both during his tour in Vietnam and beyond.
Jamie’s father, Big Jack, is a drunken dockworker who, selfish as he is to both his wife and his two sons, touts the existence of leprechauns and fairies whenever he can. Jamie’s mother Mamie comes to New York City from Ireland with her deceased mother’s rosary beads and a worn book of Yeats poetry and soon becomes wedded to the bottle herself during a difficult pregnancy and life with Big Jack.
But Yeats soothes her soul and Jamie cites her favorite poem more than once: “Faeries, come take me out of this dull world, / For I would ride with you upon the wind, / Run on the top of the disheveled tide, / And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
This world of Jamie’s is never dull, but in the stormy crucible of his alcoholic family, he uses the inspiration both parents provide as a way to survive life’s assaults, be it a Viet Cong attacker or his steep personal struggles with “the demon drink.”
IN THE THICK OF THE TET OFFENSIVE
The story starts off in 1967 in a Vietnam jungle with a grenade explosion that sends shrapnel into Jamie’s shoulder. Omitting big-picture descriptions of the Vietnam War, Lutz instead hones in on Jamie’s up-close point of view. We can easily imagine the CH47 Chinook copter with “its thunderous takeoff and the deafening roar of its tandem rotors above your head.” We feel the “earth sucking at your wet feet and legs” when Jamie’s battalion is sent to the Mekong Delta to work three months in the rivers and swamps, constantly in water for three-day stretches, slogging through swollen currents and muddy trails.
In the awful isolation of life away from base camp and losing friends to torture and death, Jamie muses on how “the quest for glory morphed into numb fatalism with the realization that survival was more about luck than skill.” This happens in the midst of the TET offensive, in a war his generals had yet to understand.
Juxtaposed against wartime details, Lutz provides rich flashbacks to earlier years. In childhood, Jamie is a legend at playing stickball with a broomstick. He defends his older but smaller brother from schoolyard bullies any time he can, and at eight years old, he wields a broken lamp to protect his mother from his father’s attacks. Jamie is a stellar soldier in basic training in Louisiana, making a bed you can bounce a coin on any day and becoming a sharpshooter as if the skill were an easy one to acquire.
LEARNING TO BECOME A DIFFERENT KIND OF HERO
Upon his return to New York City, we wonder for a time if Jamie has the strength to take a different path from his drunken father. He finds it impossible to fit back into civilian life in a country that neither honors his medals nor acknowledges his immaculate service. Drinking becomes by far the easiest path, especially with a proud father who wants nothing more than a drinking buddy.
Jamie’s recovery takes a turn when he realizes that “… fixing my life would mean nothing if it didn’t mean something.” He ends up in a familiar place of his childhood, St. Bernard’s Catholic church on 14th Street, where he attended mass and school, “the Irish church with the two towers. One each side of a stained-glass window.” There he encounters a Jesuit priest who believes in him, and finds another call to be a hero, from a seventh-grade friend now in trouble in Nicaragua. This adventure provides as much uncertainty and excitement as his Vietnam days.
Throughout the story, Jamie looks for solace in love as well as from drink, and several women come into his life. In true fashion, he pulls out another Irish proverb — your feet will bring you where your heart is — as he wonders how worthy he might be to the woman he is dying to win over after all his struggles.
The story ends as richly as it began. We consider how we all have weaknesses we struggle to overcome and sometimes cannot, and feel encouraged and inspired to find a character like Jamie Corrigan, whose honesty and integrity make us applaud his courage to try at all costs to come as close as we can to being that hero we all want to be.
Hero Can I Be is now available for purchase.