Thursday, November 19, 2015

Moonlight Serenade

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

The third discrete story line in Them Bones the author enigmatically labels “The Box,” for reasons that will not soon become apparent. “Box” chapters each begin with a terse, bureaucratic report on an Army unit, with 146 personnel initially present for duty and one missing. They then take the form of diary entries by a low-ranking adjutant and former helicopter pilot named Smith, who, we quickly realize, is a member of Madison Leake's lost Army team - the group referenced in the aforementioned reports. Smith recounts the slow, deliberate passage of his twelve dozen fellow servicemen through the time gate, their establishment of a base camp near Suckatoncha Bayou (which buzzes with mosquitoes and lightning bugs), and his nervousness about the CIA agents, or “spooks,” accompanying the team. Waldrop was in the Army during the Vietnam War, and the tropes and assumptions of that era shape his presentation of Smith's cohort, even though the date on his first report is 1 October 2002.

Failing to locate Leake, the expeditionaries spend a week setting up camp, during which time one reveals he'd brought along a “mini-cassette” player (no CDs when Waldrop wrote this novel). Unfortunately, someone stole all of Spec. Jones' tapes before departure, except three. Here Waldrop gets to show off both his love of obscure music and quirky creativity, identifying the tapes as Roger Whitaker's Great Love Movie Themes, Moe and the Meanies' Rip My Duck*, and 16 Hits by Glenn Miller. The commandant allows his men to play a couple of hours of music every day around sundown, which is why Smith gets to hear “Moonlight Serenade” one mid-October evening in the late Mississippian era, as the moon rises “like a pumpkin over the water,” the surface of the bayou gleams like “a flat tree-lined sheet of glass,” and venison and catfish cook on his comrades' campfires. These serene and homely details heighten the contrast between the soldiers' first peaceful weeks in the past and the stormy confrontation that awaits them.

(I've skipped here one short anecdote about a dog the soldiers adopted up in the future, who helped demonstrate to them that their time machine would work. There's not much to it; mostly Waldrop puts it in to indicate that their chief researcher, Dr. Heidegger, is a douche.

Coming next: The crowd prefers to look at Madison's horse.

* Have I mentioned that I really want this album? Or at least the poster from the Meanies' first tour.