One of the first glimpses we get of Hollis, the protagonist of Mitch Cullin’s The Post-War Dream, is this: “He squinted to perceive the ghostly reflection of him; cast discernibly now on the glass of the window, his chest’s silver, coarse hairs looked golden, his forehead’s rugged creases appeared less defined.” The dangerously familiar character of an aging man taking stock of his past is, for the most part, handled deftly by Cullin, who returns time and again to the central concerns of mortality, memory and loss.
An unassuming retiree, Hollis lives with his wife Debra in a sleepy desert town, and at the beginning of the novel, Debra encourages Hollis to write about his life before they met. She is especially eager to hear about his life as a soldier in the Korean War. When he is reluctant, she tells him, “Everyone is interesting, and everyone has a story to tell.”
Debra’s contention that we all have a story to tell is thrown into a sharp and tense contrast by Hollis’s doubt-filled rejoinder: “I’m not sure everyone is interesting, Deb. I mean, what if I discover how incredibly dull I am, or how meaningless?” When Debra becomes ill, her desire for Hollis to tell his story becomes even more urgent. Of course, we’re led to believe that Debra is right; that everyone does have a story to tell, even Hollis.
Based in part on the life stories of his own parents, Cullin’s novel is a chronicle of Hollis’s life as a solider and as the loving husband of a woman battling ovarian cancer. Cullin has a naturally poetic style, which tends toward revelatory moments and memorable sensory descriptions. Cicadas and crickets purr. Insects whirr. The “stench of vomit [is] a disgorging fume hanging below the deck, mingling with the body odors and cigarette smoke of the troops.”
At times, Cullin’s stylistic turns muddle rather than illuminate Hollis’s character and his predicament, but the novel ends with a satisfying twist that ultimately renders it a tender-hearted and moving, if flawed, examination of love and loss.