Silence of the Living

Powerful new novel takes on war and its consequences

Special to The Ellsworth American

To say William Carpenter’s third novel, “Silence,” is a 9/11 book would be correct, but would sell it short in scope and intent. Yes, the chief protagonist Nick Colonna enlisted because of the attack on the Twin Towers, and his subsequent traumatization and hearing loss from an ambush in Iraq are the result of that patriotic act. But “Silence” (Islandport Press, 2021, $17.95) also is about a Maine island, Thoreau, the Red Paint People and Mohamed Atta, who flew one of the planes into the World Trade Center.

“Silence” opens in the desert, on a morning patrol in Iraq’s ancient city of Samarra in 2006. Colonna and his Army buddies are tossing Mr. Goodbars to kids in the street from their Humvee when a sick-looking dog wanders into their path. Wanting to put the animal out of its misery, one of them shoots it, setting off an explosion that kills two of them, Ramos and Dupuy, and leaves Colonna deaf, shattered and haunted. 

Carpenter, who lives in Stockton Springs, is brilliant at describing the silence of Colonna’s world, as well as his episodes of PTSD paranoia as he recovers in Maine (“The RFD mailboxes are where they plant them [IEDs],” he imagines at one point). Armed with a dog-eared copy of “The Portable Thoreau” given to him by his former high school English teacher, he takes up residence in a ramshackle cabin on Amber Island just off Ledgeport, a fictional representation of Rockland, drawn there in part by memories of a weekend of sex in a tent with a former girlfriend.

Colonna is incredibly self-reliant and efficient, from military training, but also genes: His grandfather was a quarryman on Amber and his father produces tombstones, eschewing a laser machine for hand-carving. He quickly repairs the place and even sets up a makeshift corral for the semi-wild “unshorn and shaggy” sheep that wander the island. 

On an early visit to Amber, Colonna discovers a burial site of the Red Paint People, that mysterious “Maritime archaic” culture known for staining the bodies of their dead with ochre coloring. He feels a kinship with them and carefully tends to their grave goods. (The reference sent me back to Samuel French Morse’s “A Poem about the Red Paint People,” which pays tribute to the pre-Columbian residents of New England.)

In Chapter 8, Carpenter switches narrative perspectives, from Colonna to Julia Fletcher, a young woman from a privileged Boston family that spent summer stretches camping on Amber. Her late architect father had designed a house for the island and now her sister Nicole and her husband are bent on building it as part of a destination resort, complete with helipad and tennis courts, much to Julia’s chagrin. 

On a visit to record elements of the island with her camera, Fletcher meets Colonna. Eventually, through a Blackberry, they communicate their shared love of the place. That dedication to the island shapes the rest of the narrative as each of them addresses the situation in his and her own way.

Carpenter’s writing is brisk and, like his acclaimed second novel, “The Wooden Nickel,” full of detail, be it the operating of a Cessna or the island’s flora and fauna. There is humor here too, if darkish: “God had the right strategy for the Middle East: a six-week downpour, then bring in a shipload of animals and start over. It would have been better than Tomahawk missiles for shock and awe.”

“Silence” is anti-war, pro-Earth without proselytizing. In some ways, it reflects the ecological vision of College of the Atlantic, where Carpenter taught for more than 45 years (he was a founding faculty member and retired in 2019). Citations from Thoreau underscore that perspective, in particular the exhortation to “simplify.”

The book carries a dedication to poet and Air Force pilot Peter H. Liotta (1957-2012) and these lines from the famous Yeats poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”: “Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.” With echoes of such classic war writings as Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun,” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Carpenter’s novel does not hold its peace in exploring the wages and sins of our destructive nature. You might say the silence is deafening — and demanding of our better selves. 

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