New novel 'Like the Appearance of Horses' asks provocative questions about the past
After a brief detour to imagine the end of humanity in his 2020 novel, "The Bear," Somerville author Andrew Krivak returns to Dardan, Pennsylvania, to continue the story of the Vinich family in a follow up to his first two novels, "The Sojourn" and "The Signal Flame." The latest entry in this saga, "Like the Appearance of Horses," weaves through those earlier books, giving insight into how war shaped the fates and fortunes of a proud, tight-knit family across generations.
Picking up a thread from the first book, Krivak kicks things off in 1933. Fourteen-year-old half-Roma Bexhet "Becks" Konar shows up in Dardan looking for the man who saved his life as a newborn baby, Jozef Vinich. He's been sent by his grandfather in an effort to shield him from the persecution of Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross Party. Years later, Beck and Vinch's daughter get married, and he goes on to fight in World War II.
After getting separated from his unit, Becks is sheltered by a network of Roma resistance fighters who help him get in touch with his heritage and draw him back to Hungary, where he exacts righteous revenge against his people's oppressors. Decades later, his son Sam is taken prisoner and tortured while serving in Vietnam. When he returns home, he is suffering from a crippling heroin addiction and finds that his girlfriend is engaged to marry his brother.
Krivak is a powerful writer, and his talents are on display throughout the book. He moves from thrilling war sequences to intimate domestic scenes with an easy facility, and the fluidity of his language deftly guides you through the dense, detailed narrative. However, what stands out most about Krivak's style in this book, is the way it shifts to give the different time periods a distinct atmosphere.
When Krivak writes about Jozef's life in Dardan during the 1930s or Becks's experiences in Europe during the war, his prose has a timbre that verges on biblical or Homeric. The characters speak with portentous gravity, and their diction is rich and lyrical — sometimes outright cryptic. "The last words his grandfather said to him…were, you are Konar now, the branch. Stay on the long road until you find the vine." The message is clear — these are people of great importance. Krivak writes about them with unabashed awe and reverence.
He doesn't gloss over the brutality and inhumanity of World War II, but there's a sense that out of such horror, men of strength and quality were forged. While they are certainly troubled by their experiences, they bear their burdens stoically and do their duty without complaint. Their inner lives are largely opaque. We know them mostly through their actions, as described to us in Krivak's narration.
In the Vietnam-era chapters, Krivak adopts a more casual style. "When the shit's going down, it goes down fast and hard," thinks Sam. "…You just have to hang on and do what they taught you to do." These characters aren't the towering, heroic figures of the past; they're simply people and, compared to their antecedents, disappointingly familiar. We're inside their heads and steeped in their emotional lives. We witness their anguish, their uncertainty and their weaknesses. By changing the way we engage with the characters of this era, Krivak ensures they can never measure up to the imagined heroes of the past, a sentiment that the characters themselves no doubt share.
This approach presents, to borrow from another piece of war fiction, a Catch-22. The World War II segments of the book, with their epic poetic feel, are by far the most riveting and rewarding, and yet in their depiction of the characters, they are probably the least true to life. Jozef and Becks appear more as mythological archetypes than people, an increasingly common depiction of figures from their generations in the media but one largely absent from their own more conflicted narratives.
The Vietnam chapters, in contrast, are a thoughtful and realistic treatment of the severe toll that war can have on soldiers and their loved ones. They are also, unfortunately, much less compelling. There's nothing romantic about Sam's misery in the Hanoi Hilton or his subsequent struggles with addiction, and the beats Krivak hits are, by this point, all standard issue.
We're too close to Sam's story to see it for anything other than what it really is. Jozef's and Becks's stories are now mostly beyond the reach of living memory, in that liminal space where history starts to evolve into legend. They get to save damsels in distress and crush fascists; Sam is mostly fighting his own demons.
Nevertheless, "Like the Appearance of Horses" is an engaging book that raises provocative questions about how we perceive and engage with the past and is a further testament to Krivak's masterful abilities as a storyteller.