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Absent Friend by Wes Boyd

 

In 1970, a Spearfish Lake kid walked into a patch of jungle in Vietnam, and was never seen again. In an era when many people were tired of the war or just didn’t care, most were ready to forget about him—except for his friends, some of whom he’d never met, but who kept the faith anyway.


A novel, no longer online

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Listed: Oct 3, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

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Pass

By Sonja Nitschke, editor

Dec 7, 2008: There is nothing wrong with Absent Friend, but it is not good or even bad enough to be good. It’s simply okay. I’ve read eight chapters and midway through chapter 9 I decided that I couldn’t read anymore.

The pacing seems off, to me. The author introduces Mike who, I presume, is one of the protagonists, and then the reader is taken back in time ten years earlier to Gil, another protagonist where the author presents a dull history of his service in the Vietnam war. Then the author writes from Kirsten’s p.o.v and then it’s back to Mike and then to Gil and it seems a bit disjointed.

Eight chapters in the author hasn’t really shown the reader anything, though he certainly took his time to detail everybody’s histories to explain the way they are today. A good portion of these chapters (including what little I read of the ninth) were devoted to exposition. There was no character development—in fact, it read more like a detailed summary one would find in an essay.

I think Absent Friend’s main problem is that it is unimaginative. Both the prose and the dialog are uninspired and, dialog wise, the characters all have the same voice. The plot itself doesn’t take off running—instead it lingers in the past or just tells the reader what happens next.

When I read a story, I want to have a feel for the story and the setting. Absent Friend doesn’t provide that. Spearfish Lake doesn’t feel like Spearfish Lake. The absent friend the title refers to is continuously described as a Spearfish Lake kid, but what does that mean? What kind of kid is a Spearfish Lake kid? The characters read like card board puppets playing a role. That doesn’t provide me any impetus to continue reading.

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Most Helpful Member Reviews

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Gone, But Not (Wholly) Forgotten

By S. D. Youngren, author of Rowena's Page

Nov 23, 2009: Nowhere in Wes Boyd’s FAQ or About pages does he tell us whether he’s ever served in the military. But Absent Friend, his story of faithful Army buddies on a search for a Missing In Action comrade, makes me wish I knew . . . and not just because I’m curious about the accuracy of the Army slang and military procedures used here. It’s also the faithfulness thing. And faithfulness is what the story is about.

Absent Friend is apparently the sixth of a series of novels about a community called Spearfish Lake; the collection is, reasonably enough, called Spearfish Lake Tales. I haven’t read any of the first five books, but this doesn’t seem necessary. The faithful buddies of Absent Friend—there are too many of them to tastefully list in full—did not all serve together; in fact, they did not all serve in the same war. Most served in Vietnam, including the absent friend of the title, Henry Toivo. Because there is no official information on Henry’s fate, his friends take it upon themselves to attempt their own investigation. They vow they will not rest until they know what happened to Henry, and if at all possible have either rescued him or brought back his remains. I won’t tell you how the story comes out, except that Henry disappeared in 1970 and the last chapter takes place in 1991. This is not an epilogue; it’s over a decade of work for his buddies; a great deal of work and a very, very long wait.

One of the strong points of this story is, in fact, the frustration the buddies endure; the work and the wait. We see repeated appeals to embassies, failure after failure to get somebody official to listen, to inquire, to help, to care. The buddies plan and re-plan; they try to juggle the search, their jobs, and their families. They pore over maps; they hold meetings; they raise funds and collect equipment for an expedition they know perfectly well they may never get permission to mount, knowing also that they’re hardly guaranteed success—especially after all this time—even if they do manage to go. And they do this for years.

The way they bear up under all this is worth noting. Otherwise fiercely loyal to the Army and proud of their service, they complain (not without reason) about not just the red tape they must overcome but also about certain poor decisions that led not only to Henry’s disappearance but also to the failure of the initial searches for him; searches that might not only have given Henry’s loved ones the answers they need but which might have (so far as anyone knows) brought him safely home with his fellows. This combination of loyalty and, in places, outright disgust I found intriguing. Of course their loyalty to Henry never wavers.

Not that the Army buddies are the only ones who are concerned. There’s also Henry’s parents, Henry’s fiance’e, Kirsten, and a young (at the beginning of the story) reporter named Mike McMahon. If the Army buddies in complaining about military procedures and higher-ups raise questions about one form of loyalty, Kirsten raises others . . . sort of. She has sworn never to marry until Henry returns or is proven dead, and she never questions this resolve—or, apparently, her particular way of handling it, which involves dating, sleeping with two or three men, then shacking up with Mike and bearing him children, while reminding him at intervals (and at length) that, should Henry ever come back, she will of course dump Mike instantly in favor of the returned hero. She can do this without giving much thought to Henry’s reaction because she believes that Henry is probably dead, apparently figuring that his possible reappearance is just one of those things she’ll have to deal with if it happens. In the meantime Mike, good guy that he is, joins the find-Henry efforts, keeping his mixed feelings pretty much to himself. He is aware that Kirsten is not really rational where Henry is concerned, but is determined to accept her as she is . . . not least, apparently, because she is both “cute” and “built.”

Mike is not the only character who did not know Henry Toivo, or did not know him well, which leads us to a bigger problem than Kirsten’s loyalty issues. The problem isn’t that not all of the characters knew Henry; the problem is that the reader doesn’t know Henry either. The characters do talk about him, but only vaguely, and only terms of what a great outdoorsman, hunter and (high school) athlete he was. I don’t remember a single comment of Henry’s quoted, a single story told (“Remember the time he . . . ”), or anything else related that would give him a little life and make the reader really care. It isn’t enough that something bad has almost certainly happened to him—either death or imprisonment—but the reader also needs to have the impression that Henry had lived in the first place, that his friends really have a reason to miss him and to care, and that the reader has a reason to care as well. From fairly early on I found myself feeling disturbed about this, and looking for some glimpse of who Henry actually was, and finding little or nothing. The details of the search were interesting, but their object—Henry—was not. He is not just absent from his hometown and the people he’d known there; he is absent from his own story. I spent most of the novel wondering whether Boyd had done this to make a point, but found no evidence that he had.

There are other failings, most of them minor. There are a few too many handy coincidences; for instance, the searchers just happen to include experts in equipment (including food), a guy who’s unusually good at learning languages (and his wife, who happens to be from Vietnam), and even an archaeologist (recruited for the purpose, but a boyhood friend of Henry’s all the same). A few of the things that happen in Vietnam are downright hard to believe; some of these are coincidences and others are technological. (From my familiarity with my husband’s 2007 GPS unit, I am not convinced that a sporting-goods-store model could, in 1990, be “accurate to within a few yards” in rural Vietnam.) Rather too much time is spent on the courtships of various characters, where their wives and marriages are really not very important to the story (I have to feel a little sorry for the one wife who’s mentioned only very briefly; she seems to be getting snubbed). Either Boyd is fonder of such matters than most males will admit to being, or he is filling in background related perhaps to his other Spearfish Lake stories. In any case, this material doesn’t belong here, and slows the story down too much. The only really relevant courtship is that of Mike and Kirsten, which begins with a mishap I am not going to describe, except to say that I could only assume it to be an example of “guy humor.” Not being a guy myself I felt I was not best qualified to judge whether or not it was funny, but I just happened to have a guy on hand, and had him read it. According to my husband, the chapter in question is only mildly amusing. Finally, insufficient proofreading let through a few sentences mangled enough to halt the story for decoding.

Even though Absent Friend is more about the still-present friends than the absent one, it should still make you think about the plight of POWs and MIAs . . . as well as their loved ones. Though I still don’t know whether he has any connection to any missing soldier, or to any branch of the military, it’s clear that Wes Boyd has not forgotten.

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