Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Once an Eagle

Last summer I noticed this massive, 1400-page novel mixed in with a batch of non-fiction war books Blackstone had acquired for the military market. The title rang a bell so I did a little research and realized we had a gem on our hands. Anton Myrer's sprawling 1968 novel could fairly be considered the Atlas Shrugged of the Army set. It embodies a code of living held dear by those who have devoted their lives to the defense of our country. It was made into a TV mini-series in 1976, starring Sam Elliot and Glenn Ford. The corny title aside, it's a big-boned, raw-knuckled epic in the tradition of Guthrie and Wouk, with a dash of Stegner's thoughtfulness thrown in for good measure. The writing is solid and well-crafted, the characters sharply etched and unforgettable, the conflicts neatly delineated and convincingly played out. The battle scenes are authentic and thrilling to read. In short, it's just the sort of book I love to sink my teeth into.

Once an Eagle follows the career of Sam Damon, a smarter-than-average Nebraska farm boy possessed by a burning desire to do "great things." On the eve of America's entry into World War I, he boldly seeks a coveted slot at West Point, but when circumstances intervene to deny him this opportunity, he decides to enlist in the Army. Blessed with native intelligence and a talent for strategic thinking, Sam's particular gift lies in his instinct for "the right thing at the right moment," a sort of sixth sense that kicks in when it appears that all is lost. This instinct comes into play when, in a stunning reversal of fortune, he rallies his decimated unit and turns a hopeless situation into a significant victory for the Allies. While his heroic actions garner him a medal, a promotion and a general's daughter for a wife, they also mark him as man who isn't prone to toe the line when it comes to shoddy orders and inept leadership.

The war over, Sam decides to make a career of the service, even though he's warned that "the war to end all wars" will render the Army obsolete. Sam feels otherwise, his experiences during the war having given him a glimpse of mankind's thirst for violence and conquest. The next two decades are filled with drudgery and frustration, but Sam uses the time to polish his leadership skills and devotes himself to intensive study. A plum assignment to China offers him a glimpse of the new face of war, but creates a rift with his family that proves difficult to heal. When, inevitably, war looms on the horizon again, Sam has established a firm bond with his unit and cultivated friendships with fellow officers that prove crucial in the coming conflict. On the other hand, his sense of justice and his refusal to "play the game" will have devastating consequences, for himself, his family and those closest to him.

Myrer served briefly in World War II and wrote a number of fine novels, among them The Last Convertible, a moving tribute to the "greatest generation" and an elegy, of sorts, for the "New Frontier" in American life and politics, which was also made into a mini-series in 1979.
Once an Eagle is a splendid saga, hard to put down and filled with terrific action and plenty of emotional heft. Don't be put off by the length--if you like The Winds of War, you'll definitely enjoy this one.

If you're interested in learning more about the book and it's popularity with military buffs and professionals, you can visit this excellent website maintained by Tom Hebert.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Defending Jacob

I've rarely enjoyed narrating anything as much as I enjoyed narrating William Landay's Defending Jacob. The writing is superb, the plot twists compelling, and the courtroom aspects of the story are especially well handled. (I don't have to tell you how many so-called "legal thrillers" make a hash of the law.) But more than that, the nature of the first-person narrative afforded me the chance to explore an emotional range that I don't often get to do.

Andy Barber is a man with a story to tell--a complicated story, a terrible story that he both wants to tell and doesn't want to tell. He has to tell it--to a grand jury investigating the aftermath of a tumultuous murder case on a small, upscale Massachusetts suburb. He wants to tell it--to set the record straight as well as find some sense of closure for himself. But he also knows that it's going to be difficult for anyone else to understand--or even believe--what happened and why.

Complicating this act of self-revelation and confession is the fact that Andy, by his own admission, has some serious credibility issues. As the story progresses, we learn that he is very adept at withholding information--from his colleagues, his friends and his family. The question becomes what, if anything, he is withholding from us.

When I spoke with Landay for Blackstone Audio's series of blog interviews, he immediately took exception to my use of the term "unreliable narrator." Landay pointed out, rightly I think, that Andy is reliable--as reliable as he can be, given that he's confronted with a series of wrenching emotional dilemmas. It's not that he isn't telling the truth, but there's something about the way he chooses to parcel out the story that keeps the listener in a state of constant uncertainty about what is really going on.

Few things are quite as satisfying for an actor as the chance to portray a flawed character, one who forces the the audience to continually reexamine its loyalties. Defending Jacob offered just such a chance and I'm grateful for the opportunity. Regardless of whether you're a fan of the courtroom genre or not, Defending Jacob is an exceptionally good novel from any point of view.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Return of The Stand

Well, it's out on Audible today--Stephen King's The Stand. This is not the edited version I recorded twenty-five years ago, it's the complete, uncut edition published in 1990, all forty-eight hours of it! It took four weeks to record, and I had to pace myself so I wouldn't sound fatigued or thread-bare at any point. I'm pleased with the recording, though I'll be interested to see how it holds up against the earlier version in the memories of King devotees. The old version was only available on cassette and has been out of print for a decade or more. I still get emails from people asking if I have a copy they could borrow and duplicate for themselves. Alas, no, I never got one. But now there's no need. The new version is complete, and in my humble opinion I'm a better narrator than I was twenty-five years ago, so I was delighted to have a chance to re-record it.

There are few better writers for audiobook narration than Stephen King. He gives you all the right cues, creates wonderful characters, keeps the story moving and injects emotional twists and surprises at every corner. Never a dull moment in the booth with this guy.

The odd thing is, as I read the uncut version in preparation, I found that I remembered very little of the story and the characters. The opening scene remains vivid--the clunky old Chevy containing the first victims of the superflu plowing into a lonely little gas station in rural Texas. And I remember Randall Flagg (who could forget Randall Flagg?). But beyond that most of the book felt completely new to me. Perhaps it was the added material that threw me off, I don't know. But it's just as well, since there was no temptation to replicate any voices or characters or moods from the earlier recording. What you hear is as fresh as last month, not a recycled rendition from 25 years ago.

I'll be interested to see what "the critics" say. The proponderance of male characters seemed to hail from the Midwest or Southwest, so there were an awful lot of "good ol' boys" to sort through and make distinguishable. The most difficult characters for me were Harold and Frannie. Harold is a pimply, overweight, pompous-sounding 16-year-old, not an easy person to replicate. And eighteen-year-old Frannie is the emotional core of the book, enormously smart and feisty, but extremely vulnerable--and pregnant. I played around with a Maine accent for her and it sounded just awful, so I let my native East Coast tones predominate. A fifty-five year old man is already handicapped in this regard, and I didn't want her to come off as a caricature. So she's voiced in a pretty straight-forward manner. I gave her father and some of the other Ogunquit characters a dose of down-east, so hopefully that will placate the die-hards.

My favorite character, of course, is Tom Cullen (who doesn't love Tom Cullen?). In the uncut version he really gets fleshed out, and it's truly wonderful to experience his transformation from a fool to a hero. In one critical scene I took a risk that, under normal circumstances, I would have avoided like...well, like the plague. But to do other than what I did seemed like such a cop-out that I took the plunge. I'm curious to see if anyone even notices--and whether they like it or hate it.

But by far the biggest, most overwhelming challenge, of all the challenges in a story so fraught with them, was that of coming up with seventy-plus ways of saying, "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" It seems that every character, at some point in the book, shouts or screams or bellows or rasps the word, "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

Anyway, it was a terrific experience and it's great to have the story out there again for everyone to enjoy.