'The Book of Jonas': A war orphan's progress in Pittsburgh

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His name is Younis, and he lives in a village in an unnamed Muslim country where American soldiers do their worst, blowing up the village, killing civilians. Younis is alive only because his bladder urged him awake and to the outhouse at the crucial moment before the blast.

When he sees there is nothing left, he does not cry or look for his family. Instead, the 15-year-old begins walking up to the mountains where his father once told him there is a cave that could provide shelter if ever there is trouble. When he wakes up, exhausted and dazed from his badly wounded arm, there is an American soldier in the cave with him.

"The Book of Jonas"
By Stephen Dau
Blue Rider Press/Penguin ($24.95).

The story does not stay there, in that country or that cave, for long. It's revisited only as memory once Younis -- who knows English and who renames himself in the English version of his name, Jonas -- ends up in the United States in a nominal Pittsburgh.

Stephen Dau's "The Book of Jonas" is told in extremely brief snatches, all in the present tense. Jonas is a character who does not want to remember the disaster that befell him, and so he repeatedly doesn't. He doesn't get along with his peers in high school and has little or no relationship with his adoptive family, do-good Bible-thumpers. He goes to the University of Pittsburgh (he's smart without trying) and he discovers alcohol. He drinks heavily.

Author Stephen Dau in Pittsburgh on March 28
Stephen Dau will speak at Writers LIVE, a series of book talks presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures and Carnegie Library. The 6 p.m. event takes place at the library's Main Branch in Oakland. Admission is free, but please register at pittsburghlectures.org.

There are moments of hope when he falls in love with Shakri, a beautiful Indian student. He likes her, but he likes drink and oblivion more. His therapist, Paul, has very little effect on him, constantly asking him what he's not saying. In those short scenes, Jonas shrugs, sighs, looks at the floor -- and we're on to another scene.

Somehow, and it's not quite clear how, Paul knows to give Jonas articles about the family of an American soldier missing in action. It happens that the soldier's mother lives in Johnstown. Jonas resists going to see her for a very long time. A small portion of the novel is from her point of view as she gathers people and photographs looking for a way to understand what happened to her son, Christopher. She is an energetic organizer of support groups, seeking out others who have lost sons one way or another in the war.

Christopher had kept a diary. That diary is rendered in short snatches throughout the novel. It is clear that Jonas has read it.

This novel is a story of waste. All around. The author might very well have seen such waste. According to his biography, Mr. Dau, a Greensburg-area native, worked for a decade in postwar reconstruction and now lives in Brussels.

"The Book of Jonas" has a very good story at its base -- two desperate people, enemies, find themselves together in a remote and exotic setting. I'd like to quibble, however, with the way it is told.

The brief scenes and the constant present tense, instead of igniting a sense of spontaneity have the opposite effect. The prose taps out an unvaried rhythm. Characters are robbed of time for reflection and memory. That's Mr. Dau's point -- that Jonas doesn't want to remember. But how potent it would be if the novel showed relationships with his original family that we could witness, relationships with his host family that illustrated a soul in distress, and extended interaction with that American soldier in the cave.

These are the hidden stories of the novel, stories which we must assume are there, but which would have been richly moving if rendered fully.

Still, when we get to the conclusion, and its series of truths we have pretty much figured out, the book begins to reap an emotional impact. All along I wanted to feel something for Jonas' lost family. I wanted him to feel something. When he finally did, when he took action by leaving the United States to deal with what he'd left behind -- when I could cry -- I wished there had been more rendered moments of risk.

(Local watch: From what I can tell, the Johnstown and Pittsburgh of this book are highly fictionalized. A few place names seem right, but many appear to be made up. That's fine for a novel, but Pittsburghers might feel particular about their details.)

Kathleen George teaches at Pitt, lives on the North Side and writes crime novels set in Pittsburgh. Her most recent is "Hideout" and her sixth, forthcoming in August, is "Simple" (kathleengeorgebooks.com).


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