Book Review by Vincent Bosquez
By Daniel Alarcon
In the late 1980s, I served as a Marine Corps recruiter in South Texas where it was my goal to enlist three recruits a month into the armed forces. At the time, “making mission” was all that mattered to me since I knew the Corps would take good care of my enlistees once they entered boot camp.
Then came the first Gulf War, and I started getting phone calls from parents worried about their sons and daughters. Questions such as “Have you heard from Anthony?” “Do you think Maria will have to spend nights in a foxhole?” And the question “Will they all come back home safe?” assaulted me during the day and haunted me at night.
The calls brought back carefree images of teenagers, eager to serve their country, who now faced the possibility of coming home in body bags. These names, and many more, crept back into my consciousness as I read Daniel Alarcón’s mesmerizing debut novel, “Lost City Radio.”
Daniel Alarcon, a Peruvian native who lives in Oakland, where he teaches at Mills College, weaves a harrowing tale of guerrilla warfare in an unnamed South American country that focuses on the devastation inflicted on the lives of family members who are left behind to wonder, worry and weep about loved ones fighting in a conflict in which no one really knows who’s right or wrong, or worse yet, how it will all end, if ever.
While the war is the epicenter of the novel, we view it through the lives of three principles who try to make sense of the turmoil the insurgency has dumped upon their lives. Each tries to find answers in the chaos the fighting has brought to their town and village, but with the fog of war prevalent, they seemingly settle on adapting, surviving, and praying for any kind of closure to the mayhem.
Norma, the central character, is the host of a national radio program, “Lost City Radio.” For years, her voice, which her producer once described as “gold that stank of empathy,” is the sole source of consolation to a country seeking to find loved ones who left, or were abducted, from their homes to fight, only to never be seen again. Unbeknownst to her audience, her husband is one of the missing.
“Welcome to Lost City Radio … To all the listeners, a warm greeting this evening, my name is Norma … Call us now, and tell us who you’re looking for. Who can we help you find? Is it a brother you’re missing? A lover? A mother or father, an uncle or a childhood friend? We’re listening, I’m listening … Call now, tell us your story.” And then, night after night, she reads lists of names sent in by callers hoping to find the missing the war has claimed.
Such is the life Norma leads for a decade until one day, a 10-year-old boy from a jungle village now called 1797 shows up at the radio station with a list of names that contains one she has longed to read on the air but can’t due to governmental oversight — the one that belongs to her long absent spouse. Who, Norma wonders, put that name on the list and what other clues does the boy and the man who accompanied him out of the jungle have that can lead to a reunion with her husband?
Alarcón, a Whiting Award winner and PEN/Hemingway Award finalist for his 2005 short story collection “War By Candlelight,” eloquently probes the ramifications of war on the home front from a perspective that can be overlooked if one doesn’t have a family member in arms. He tenderly reveals the impact of war on society and the emotional wounds on humanity that sometimes never heal. Alarcón painstakingly reminds us that soldiers don’t go into skirmishes alone; they take with them loved ones who yearn for an embrace and the chance to utter their names upon safe passage home.