Better You Go Home: A Tense Novel by Scott Driscoll

In January I met Scott Driscoll, a Seattle author and creative writing teacher.  I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him because of our common interest in the Soviet bloc countries.  Scott has written a novel set mainly in the Czech Republic, titled Better You Go Home.  I read the novel eagerly last month.  It is powerful.scott driscoll's book

Better You Go Home tells the story of a Seattle attorney, Chico Lenoch, visiting the Czech Republic a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The Czech Republic is the homeland of Chico’s father, and Chico has become aware that he has a half-sister here.  He looks for the woman partly out of desperation: Chico, a diabetic, is in kidney failure, and perhaps this sister could be the genetically matched kidney donor that he needs.  Yet as he searches for both this woman and the truth about what happened in his family, he unearths the pain that his family endured . . . and inflicted.  More and more, Chico’s quest goes beyond his own immediate medical need and becomes a drive to do the right thing for the sister who was left behind.

The book is sharply written in a close first-person narration, and the reader feels Chico’s diabetic weakness and dread as he walks this darkening path of generations-old hostilities.  The novel is driven by the tensions of family secrets (based in similar events from Scott’s own family history), political corruption and medical emergency.  This book is not light entertainment.  The chain of cause and effect is complicated, and the characters are not always easy to interpret.  But as I told Scott in an email to him after I finished the book, the complicated characters seem very real.  Even the ones that appear most reprehensible have at times done helpful deeds, and the sympathetic characters have had their moments of caving in to despair or compromise.  This conveys the stresses of people who have lived under Nazism and then communism.  In my readings on Hungary, I have encountered similar stories of moral ambiguity.  Sometimes we have to ask not only whether the characters (whether real or fictional) did right but also whether they felt they had any choice.CIMG0779

Scott’s comments about the writing of this book were illuminating.  “It was family matters that encouraged me to set out to write this story to begin with,” he said.  “What I especially wanted to know was what people thrust into a pressure cooker of politics, history, and geography (that was central Europe and the Eastern Bloc countries) did to keep their humanity alive. What I discovered was that there was no easy way to judge either side. There were consequences for my family.  But I didn’t write this for them. I wrote this for my generation, the generation whose parents suffered the worst of these events. The generation whose upbringing bore the weight of unresolved conflict among parents, many of whom were forced emigres.”

Better You Go Home is a deep and beautifully written book. Read it. But don’t read it for escape.  This is a novel you have to think about—and that’s a compliment.

Here is the Amazon link for the book

 

Re-examining an American Mindset

This essay (minus the photos) was published under a different title in The News Tribune of Tacoma, February 9, 2015.  To see the TNT article, click here.  

In recent years two of my three sons embarked on international life journeys, and in a smaller way, so did I.  My son Brendan and his wife moved to Peru in 2009 as missionaries.  In 2011 my son Patrick and his family left for Yaoundé, Cameroon with the U.S. State Department, and two years later they moved again to Manila.  Meanwhile I was writing a novel set in communist Hungary.  Since 2006, between visiting my sons and doing research, I have traveled to Cameroon and the Philippines, to Peru five times and Hungary three times.  After walking around in countries scarred by poverty or fear, I find myself rethinking our proud American optimism.  We don’t realize how blithely we live.

No matter how we complain about medical costs, Americans can plan on a fairly long life.  What if we couldn’t?  In Cameroon my son Patrick saw African lives ending early: his middle-aged secretary died, and so did the five-year-old daughter of an embassy 146mechanic and the baby of the local banana seller.  A sad fact of Cameroonian life is its shortness.  What does this do to a nation’s worldview, encountering sorrow with harrowing regularity and having to say, “If I live, if my children live . . .”?  We Americans don’t realize how much we have, just to be able to assume we will raise our children.

As Americans, we are an entrepreneurial bunch, loving to dream big.  If something is a good idea, it must be possible, right?  Not everywhere.  In Andean Peru, expanded markets for poor farmers would certainly be helpful.  But simply transporting goods can be nightmarish: the roads, where they exist, sometimes wash out in landslides; drivers don’t abide by safety regulations; cops expect Peru-July-2011-291-smbribes.   So the Andean people carry on with subsistence farming and hope that a bad crop season won’t wipe them out.  In Cameroon trade is even more difficult.  Systems of management and leadership hardly even exist.  As one African told Patrick, “Sir, if you asked me to take ten cows to the top of Mt. Febé (a nearby peak), I could do it.  If you asked me to take ten men to the top, we would never arrive.”

In America we have spent our whole history building up the systems of leadership, communication and infrastructure needed to take almost anything to the top of Mt. Febé, so to speak.  Here, new ideas can be tried out because the basics “work.”  Until I visited places where the basics are despairingly difficult, I didn’t realize how thoroughly American systems have made ingenuity possible.  We can scoff at fear of failure.  Such scoffing is dangerous in cultures where failure is almost inevitable—and very costly.

Whether or not we realize it, Americans are used to believing things will work out.  Not all countries share our optimism.  This became especially clear to me in a recent email conversation with a woman in Hungary.  Her nation has a reputation for pessimism—which is not surprising,  since Hungary’s history is full of invasions, lost wars and

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

unwanted regimes.  My Hungarian acquaintance, Judit, had read the manuscript of my novel about her country.  She enjoyed the story and said it was well-researched and accurate, but it seemed American to her: “optimistic, in spite of the difficulties,” she said.

By American standards, my novel is not optimistic.  The characters give up their dreams.  Yet they manage to create a meaningful life, and maybe that was what Judit was calling optimism.  I prefer to call it hope.   Optimism is based on good circumstances; hope, as Václav Havel said, is based on the belief that life and our deeds have meaning, even when things go badly.  Do we believe that?  If so, then we Americans are people of hope, and that is our greatest gift in this hurting world.