In the fall of 2004, when asked what he would do with his imminent retirement, then-City Council Member Paul Zerby said he planned to finish his novel about the Korean War.
(Full disclosure: I read Zerby’s early draft as a favor and returned it, as requested, with a lot of red editor’s marks. The only advice I remember giving was that, being a former lawyer, most of Zerby’s sentences — and therefore the book — were a third too long.)
More than four years later, Zerby’s The Grass, a finalist for the 2008 Bellwether Prize, has been published by North Star Press of St. Cloud. The story follows young protagonist Tom Kelly through personal rites of passage and recollects America’s “forgotten war” in Korea.
Zerby deals with issues of the time — race, class, Communism, war and pacifism — through an honest, first-person lense. He delivers broad themes of religion, politics and racism through ground-level scenes and dialogue and the no-holds-barred language of the coming-of-age story.
While much is clearly informed by Zerby’s own experiences in early ’50s Midwest America and, later, in Korea, where he served towards the end of the war, Zerby makes it clear that the book is a work of fiction.
“That’s one of the most interesting pieces about creating fiction, is taking pieces from your life,” Zerby told The Bridge. “The book goes way beyond my life in many ways. It goes below my life in many ways. It’s not me. It’s not a memoir.”
What makes us what we are
The arc of Tom Kelly’s story moves from the ignorant bliss of adolescence through the experiences of college at the University of Minnesota and, later, war in Korea. Along the way, the boy becomes a man in several ways. His eyes are opened to young love and adult pleasures (in some downright steamy scenes), the complex machinations and unfairness of a racist society, and the stark horrors of war.
An early and important part of the book is the retelling of a true story — the denial of tenure to a black professor based, some felt, on his anti-war and political views. Based on the story of Forest Wiggins, the university’s first full-time African American faculty member, the section reflects the racial — and perhaps more so, political — tenor of the times while marking a key milestone in the main character’s enlightenment and the making of his personal ethic.
It is one area in which Zerby himself was involved; like his character Tom, Zerby attended the University of Minnesota. The section provides the first great dramatic rise of the book when Tom addresses a student rally in support of the embattled professor — a grand fictionalization based nevertheless on one piece of Zerby’s own ethical awakening as a young man.
“Social, political, economic views — yeah, that was me,” said Zerby. “I don’t know exactly what makes us what we are, but I have always believed in equal worth of any human being. That comes out of a lot of things.”
As for the Wiggins affair, Zerby said it is a very important chapter in U of M history that is “not only forgotten, but deliberately shoved aside.
“I was a student, but it just looked to me like the U was totally spineless,” said Zerby. “It was a very sorry chapter in the university’s history.”
What we remember
At an April reading at the University of Minnesota bookstore at Coffman Union — one of a series he’s been giving since the book’s publication — Zerby noted the theme of “memory and forgetting,” whether on a personal or societal level, that flows through the novel.
As historical fiction, Zerby’s book is in many ways an exercise in remembering, and on a very basic level. There are no grand pronouncements of meaning, no whitewashed messages or sanitized recollections. Zerby’s explicit language and honesty at times make the reader cringe, whether at his face-value handling of racial epithets and army-barrack phraseology or his graphic, near-erotic passages of teenage lust and sex. (It is here that Zerby takes most pains, with some direction from his wife, to point out that the book is not autobiographical.)
Zerby prefaced his April reading at the U of M bookstore saying: “This is offensive, but it’s accurate. I want you to know that.
“I think this book and its treatment of what is true is in important in many ways,” Zerby told The Bridge. There is even some truth in his fictionalization, apparently; Zerby, who “never fired a gun in anger” during his time in Korea, delivers detailed, page-long descriptions of bloody battles. The passages have struck a nerve with veterans of the Korean and other wars.
“When you get stuff that resonates that way, that’s really gratifying,” said Zerby.
Different veteran’s groups at readings have had different reactions to the book, Zerby said. Some didn’t want to talk about the combat but engaged in the talk about the Jim Crow South. Others were interested in the antiwar aspect. One guy, even 50 years after the fact, was angry over Zerby’s brief depiction of his maligned unit the Triple Nickels. “I thought he was going to pop me,” Zerby said.
After the U of M bookstore reading, a Chinese student who had been in the country just two months spoke with Zerby — expressing himself through clearly new English — about the novel. The younger Chinese man and the American Zerby, now in his early 70s, traded thoughts about how each — and each one’s country — viewed the Korean War, then and now.
Zerby told the man that, while his beliefs about segregation and racism in America were solidified early on by the experiences upon which the novel is loosely based, he didn’t realize until much later, while writing the book, the extent of the cultural racism against Asians, for example. The conversation was valuable, said Zerby.
“That’s the kind of thing I hope the book generates,” he said later. “I don’t have all the answers.
“If there’s a central theme, it’s what war is, and how it affects people that engage in it, and people that are not combatants but are affected by it.” While Zerby is not a pacifist — “Sometimes you have to defend yourself,” he said — he considers the book an antiwar novel.
“That war killed hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “Was it worth it? It probably wasn’t if you were one of the people that died.”