Reviews, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
Graywolf Press, 2008
Paperback, 225 pp., $14
Review by Cynthia Reeser
“My uncle is Superman. With black Clark Kent glasses, grapefruit-sized biceps, lots of brilliantined thick dark hair, and a solid jaw, six-four and as handsome as all get-out, he’s the perfect match for Kryptonite.”
Beginning in 1999, Terese Svoboda’s childhood hero tells his story to his niece, the writer in the family, by recording it onto tapes sent to her from his farm in Nebraska. Having served as a military policeman in American-occupied Japan post-World War II, Don Svoboda witnessed devastating racial tension and prejudice throughout the ranks of the Army. A natural fighter during a time when macho men displayed bravado like a badge of honor, he narrates tales of barroom brawls and overseas escapades, but the real story, unspoken, haunts him at the end of his life. His burning secret is one that ultimately leads to his depression and suicide.
The book’s structure is unique for a memoir; Robert Polito, in the book’s introduction, dubs it “a nonfiction montage.” In Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, the soldier does not write his own story; rather, the narrative’s ownership being assumed by another, its place in history is at once secured and validated. Svoboda tells her uncle’s story as it unfolds, making the book partly a documentation of her own discovery. In this way, past and present collide, and the memoir does not flow in seamless narration. Rather, truth becomes fluid, dependent upon eyewitness accounts; eyewitness accounts, in turn, surrender their baseline facts to the flux brought on by missing documentation.
Svoboda’s research takes her to the National Archives and eventually leads to a grant allowing her to visit Japan, where she gathers stories from those who were there, those who remember what happened. Her search for records of incidents described, while proven by eyewitnesses, can be confirmed, infuriatingly, only little by the documents she finds. Some records were burned in an archive fire, some contradict one another, while other incidents have gone altogether undocumented. Svoboda’s persistence in establishing the facts surrounding her uncle’s experiences is met with frustration at every level, leading often to more questions. But the questions she asks become quandaries deserving answers. The biggest one of all still looms unanswered by her late uncle—what is this unspoken truth? He gives her the barest of facts—what are often scenes surrounding the secret—without quite telling her the secret itself. It is up to her to piece together his story, to fill in the many blanks. And little by little, a picture of the occupation emerges.
Veterans have written about their experiences—that’s nothing new. Often their memoirs express the sense of community they feel with their fellow brothers-in-arms; veterans, especially of the Vietnam War, often harbor strong feelings about their time overseas until the end of their lives, for reasons as various as the tellers of the stories. Often, a sense of feeling underappreciated by the public at large is expressed. For World War II veterans—soldiers from a much different war—injustices remembered often lead to feelings of guilt later in life; “Guilt,” Svoboda writes, “with its centrifugal force.”
Many soldiers lived their lives under the haunting shadow of post-traumatic stress disorder, before it had a name. Sixty-two percent of these veterans, according to Svoboda, exhibit PTSD symptoms but remain undiagnosed. As American soldiers now fight in a war with enemies whose identities are often as fluid as lost histories, Svoboda’s memoir reminds us that there are factions and extremists in nearly every organized group. Sometimes the enemy is racism, which can pop up anywhere—even in the system of military justice.
Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan is the winner of the 2007 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.