Bing sells off most of his possessions at a hectic yard sale before departing for West Virginia, but among the things he holds on to is a stack of letters from his son Roger, who was killed in Vietnam. And, too, he holds on to a terrible secret. Roger didn't want to join the Army, but did so only after his father bullied him into it. Thus, Bing feels that he, not a Viet Cong sniper, was responsible for Roger's death.
And as the days go by, Bing learns another secret -- Susie's young son Brian is planning to sneak off and join the Army. The boy confides in him, but begs him not to tell his mother. Bing promises he won't betray the boy. But he remembers how Roger's death broke his mother's heart. Can he keep the boy's secret and risk subjecting Susie to the same devastating grief that consumed her mother?
Ultimately, Bing's move to West Virginia becomes a voyage of discovery. He learns a great deal about himself, his family and others as well. He learns, for example, that despite his lifelong homophobia, the lesbian who lives next door to Susie and Glen can be a good friend (and a great cook). And he learns too the value of listening to other people, even when you disagree with them.
Even though the novel deals with weighty themes, it's nonetheless laced with comic moments. Consider, for example, how Bing, on his way to Frank's Barber Shop on Fourth Avenue for a badly needed haircut, gets kidnapped by a bunch of drunks who hustle him off to the dog track at Cross Lanes. (Local readers will enjoy coming upon the several real places Manilla tucks into her narrative.)
The publisher's blurb for "Shrapnel" describes it as "at times funny and at other times frightening -- and frighteningly honest." And that it is.
It's also more evidence of Manilla's extraordinary talent as a writer. Apparently the editors at one of the book industry's best-known publishing houses, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, also recognize that talent. They've purchased her next novel, "The Patron Saint of Ugly," also set in West Virginia, and have scheduled it for a spring 2014 release.
The release of "Shrapnel" will be celebrated at a book launch party and autographing session from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 14 at Empire Books, in Huntington's Pullman Square. And the author will sign copies again from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 22 at Taylor Books.
"Shrapnel" is also available from Amazon.com and directly from the publisher at sa...@rivercitypublishing.com.
James E. Casto, a retired Huntington newspaperman, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.