Honor and Entropy is a complex book — part mystery, part war narrative, and in essence a coming of age story, with age not measured by chronology. Before it is these things it is also a story within a story, that of Telly Benson’s search for his long-lost father and his friend Art Spevak’s reflection on that quest and its results.
The book initially moves quickly between the Pacific Theater in World War and various U.S. time periods, people, and places. While it was at times difficult to discern which character was thinking or speaking, the author and his readers settle in when young Arthur Spevak moves to Washington state with his parents and meets the boy who will become his lifelong friend, Telly Benson.
Telly (short for Aristotle) has grown up believing that his father, Ulysses, died during a mission in World War II. As an adult he does his own dig through military records and learns there were survivors when his father’s plane crashed, among them a Japanese prisoner of war, Major Shimano. Telly goes to Tapei to talk to the major, but only after he enlists the help of his friend Art, who is now ensconced on a mountain in Taipei. When Telly learns that his father’s plane went down in Borneo, Telly knows he has to go there.
Before he gets to that point, there is bravery in Vietnam, the loss of friends, and an (unjust, perhaps) dishonorable discharge from the Marines. And always there is Telly’s love of Laura.
It is the search for Ulysses or his demise that is most intriguing. It helped me stay with the characters and the many deviations along their paths. The reader knows Ulysses was on a mission to discover a cache of gold, the reward for “losing” two Japanese prisoners of war. It isn’t giving away too much to say Ulysses Benson survived the war — the intrigue in his life after that brings in another set of characters, these of a small Borneo town and its internal politics. There are convenient allies for Telly along the way, including an archaeology professor in Borneo who has a good sense of when to help and when to stay back.
There are a lot of subplots here — as you might expect in a book of 751 pages. Telly’s mother Penny does not remarry, but as an attractive women she has several men interested in her. How she manages to come up with bottom feeders like bounty-hunter Tony and scheming apartment manager Uri we can only imagine. Their competition for her favor does not serve her well.
No matter the setting or time period, most of the characters struggle to lead honorable lives. Their definitions of honor vary, and they must continually confront the magnet that is disorder in themselves and their environment. Those who are evil are starkly so. Though my sense is that the author sees Telly’s quest to learn his father’s fate as an honorable mission, ultimately Telly is too violent and vengeful for me to see him as a wronged son or avenging warrior.
There is sometimes more “telling” than seems needed. For example, early on the adult Art Spevak tells Telly Branson there is only warm beer and then Art reflects on his own financial state (to himself), “Five years after I had left the war to others (it had just ended) I had not become a man of means or even prospects (a look inside the frig was proof enough of that).”
If we had looked inside the frig with Art and seen little but a couple bottles of warm beer we would have discovered something about Art’s financial condition, and perhaps the man, on our own.
That said there is some wonderfully understated use of language. A young Arthur describes his mother this way, “Ma was a southerner and it powered her life.” He adds to his description with, “My mother’s tidewater accent told those who recognized it how she expected the world to spin.”
War is a continuing character in the book. If you’ve ever asked yourself how the U.S. got involved in Vietnam, Telly’s fellow Marine and friend, Aaron, has one of the most thoughtful responses I’ve seen. “We like our way of life. But there are many in the world who aren’t satisfied with theirs. Greed is king, and too many think a Marxist state will set things right, never imagining they’re gonna get lied to by those new guys, that they’re greedy little scumbags too. All conflict is about belief, and when you can’t shake that belief, then it comes down to a fight. Half the Vietnamese actually believe their lives would be better under communism. Some of those you can dissuade; the rest you can’t. That’s where we come in.”
I can appreciate a long read, but Honor and Entropy was at times too disjointed for me to appreciate it as an e-book. There is a continuing need to flip back to see whose memories are on stage at the moment, especially as Ulysses and compatriots work their way through the jungles of Borneo or Telly learns the ways of the current-day Borneo town and its many schemers.
The last few chapters do tie the varied story lines together. You even get to find out if Ulysses and friends found their gold. I give Honor and Entropy 3.5 stars, and likely would have rated it much higher if it had been 200 pages shorter. The secret you don’t learn is an important one. Who is the author, really?