Somewhere beyond the halfway point of the fascinating World War I chronicle “The Remains of the Corps: Volume I” (EG&A Publishing), protagonist and Marine Second Lieutenant Kenneth Remain, grandfather of author Will Remain, has his first brush with the enemy, a German U-boat spotted from his ship’s crow’s nest:
“His binoculared gaze fell upon an incongruous object…It was a periscope! A distinct form in a formless sea…Peeking out of the water, like a despicable hyena from its nocturnal lair, (it caused) a brief flirtation with fear…which left as quickly as it had arrived…What settled into in its place was an icy calmness — cold as arctic ice in the shade.”
The passage is significant for several reasons: it provides insight into the raw emotion felt at impact about the reality of war; it explains how a Marine officer’s state of mind needs to shift immediately into one of control; and it shows how combat, even at its nascent tip, defines people at their emotional extremes. It also displays some beautiful writing.
“Combat is, without a doubt, the absolute acid test for revealing the inner man,” writes author Remain. “It is the ultimate bloodsport.”
As this is “Volume I: Ivy and the Crossing,” Remain lays out in his introduction the plan for a six-volume series documenting three generations of the Remains and the Marines, right up to the author’s own experience in Vietnam.
Yet, right now, any Google search seeking more information on Will Remain, or his grandfather for that matter, would only generate articles on how schools, restaurants and retail establishments “will remain” closed for the foreseeable future. Not a thing about the author.
That’s because Will Remain does not exist. His is a fictional name – as is the Remain family (“Remain” being an anagram for “Marine”) – created by Tom Hebert, a former Marine himself who served in Vietnam.
So what is “The Remains of the Corps”? Nonfiction? Certainly not. A memoir? Seems like one, but not exactly. A novel? Technically, yes.
Regardless of how one classifies it, “The Remains of the Corps” is an incredible accomplishment, a magnificent creative endeavor that fascinates even before we get to Chapter One. The details, fictionalized but based on Hebert’s knowledge, research and first-hand experience, are remarkable, the writing and the language exquisite, and the work is enhanced by illustrator Tara Kaz’s 53 drawings and 81 portraits of the action and the characters. In fact, Remain provides detailed narrative and visual descriptions of the entire battalion, with specifics that paint every cast member from farm boy to city slicker. The book even has fictional testimonials of praise from fictional newspapers and magazines.
As for the protagonist, I almost came away thinking I knew Kenneth Remain better than I know myself. Through Kenneth Remain’s own journal, readers get more insight into his thoughts and feelings, as well as his observations about his men.
With the precision and efficiency of a Marine, Will Remain chronicles the years 1913 to 1917 of his grandfather’s life, from the halcyon days at Harvard to the grueling two-week, 3,500-mile journey across the Atlantic to the chilly shores of France. From the taverns in Harvard Yard to the recruiting office to training camp to the edge of the front, The Remains of the Corps, in its prelude to all-out battle, reminds me of how Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” sets up “War and Remembrance.” Lofty comparison, I know.
The narrative is pure joy, totally capturing the reader with its storytelling and language. This writer can even devote a chapter to seasickness and make it captivating.
Some of the descriptions about Kenneth really hit home:
—Getting up the courage at the recruitment office: “Insecurity had plagued Kenneth throughout his life, welling up in him like an underground spring bubbling up through sand.”
—Falling in love with his best friend’s girlfriend: “In the passion play that was his life, Kenneth consigned himself to the silent yearning and lovelorn suffering that keep company with unproclaimed love.”
—Sizing up Top Sergeant Douglas MacCallum: “One didn’t have to worry about getting on his bad side – that is where you started.”
“The Remains of the Corps” is available in a deluxe, coffee-table-style hardcover edition, as well as a paperback version, to which Hebert says he added his name on the cover, but only for the sake of clarity. This was perhaps my only disappointment – I liked it better when he fully carried out his fictional world and I believed Will Remain was our real-life narrator.
This is not your typical novel, in format or appearance. Yet it is an extraordinary work. If the subject matter is your passion, savor the minutiae. If story is your driver, prepare to be hooked. If you appreciate language and vivid writing, welcome aboard. Enjoy this tribute to the Marines and this enormous display of history, enterprise, art and creativity.
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