4 out of 4 stars
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As Good As Can Be is a coming-of-age family saga by author William A. Glass. The novel explores the lives of two generations of a military family. The story opens with Lieutenant Colonel David S. Knight Jr. stationed in Tehran in the 1950s with his young family. Colonel Knight moves his family from one military base to another as he pursues promotions and career opportunities. Meanwhile, his children suffer from both parental neglect and their father’s alcohol-fueled abuse. Dave Knight is the oldest son of the family. He grows up in this violent atmosphere; he suffers the abuse of an older sister who resents him and a father who is embarrassed by his learning disabilities. Dave comes of age during the era of the Vietnam War and is eventaully drafted into the military.
This is an expertly-crafted novel from start to finish. The author’s writing style is brisk, clear, and gritty. He employs fast-paced dialogue to convey realistic characterization throughout the book. I enjoyed the inexorable (if not exactly exciting) drive of the chronological plot. Like most family sagas, this novel covers a broad timespan and presents the story from the perspectives of multiple generations. The changing culture and historic context are woven seamlessly into the narrative as the story progresses from one decade to another. One of the things I liked best about this story is that I read much of this novel as if it was historical fiction. I learned a lot about life in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. However, there are no lengthy descriptions or complicated history lessons to slow down the story. The author does a fantastic job highlighting the setting by providing details like the daily dictation required in a 1950s classroom in Germany and the bell-bottom pants that were fashionable in the 1970s. He also alludes to cultural references; for example, a mention of Dave putting a Neil Young LP back into its sleeve evokes the musical era of the 1960s. The author also paints a vivid image of the good, the bad, and the ugly about military life during these periods. I was also fascinated by the author’s descriptions of the impact the Vietnam War had on a generation of young adults. Finally, this book was clearly professionally proofread.
I appreciated the excellent writing throughout this book. That said, I found the adult version of Dave to be an unlikeable character. I felt that Dave’s half of the story is a repetition of his father’s mistakes. In fairness, the author may have crafted this circuitous storyline on purpose. Many people’s lives do flow from one accident or mistake to another with a few eddies of excitement and depths of despair to stir up the waters along the way. Dave’s childhood and family life make his lifestyle believable. I just struggled to find emotional resonance in his character arc. He never seems to have much motivation to improve his life. He doesn't seem to care about anything—or anyone. Like his father, he often escapes into drugs or alcohol. Even the death of someone important (I won’t give away any spoilers) because of drunk driving does not have any impact on Dave’s lifestyle. These are all realistic choices for a boy raised in a violent family by an alcoholic father. As I said, the characterization in this book is highly realistic. I just didn't find it emotionally engaging.
I would recommend As Good As Can Be to readers who enjoy gritty books about military families. Sensitive readers should be aware that this book contains extensive violence and profanity, racial slurs, alcoholism, drunk driving, drug use, and attempted rape.
I give this book a rating of 4 out of 4 stars for its excellent craftsmanship, realistic characterization, and vivid setting.
As Good As Can Be
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