The Signal Flame
By Andrew Krivák
288 pages $26
In the small town of Dardan in northwestern Pennsylvania, Hannah and her son Bo are the only ones left at home in an immigrant family scarred by deaths of their menfolk in successive wars. It is 1972.
This is the start of a fine novel, “The Signal Flame” by Andrew Krivák, who earlier was a National Book Award finalist for his debut novel, “The Sojourn.”
The family’s leader, Jozef Vinich, served in World War I as an Austro-Hungarian conscript and then journeyed to America. He raised a family that included Hannah, who married Bexhet Konar, another Slovak who deserted his post in the American army during World War II.
When young son Bo asks Bexhet, his father, “Did you kill any Germans in the war?” His father (Becks as his wife calls him), answers: “Yes, son. And then I ran away from the war and hid so that I wouldn’t have to kill any more.” For this he is put in prison (in Brooklyn of all places) as a deserter, serves his time, and returns to Dardan, where the family owns land which sits, Krivák writes, on a yawning cut of three mountains.
Becks returns home a worn-out soul. To add tragedy to another, Becks is killed in a hunting accident by the father of the girl, Ruth, his youngest son, Sam, later wishes to marry against his family’s wishes.
There is a deft, scholarly touch to Andrew Krivák’s straightforward writing. It’s so clever you don’t notice that it’s there. His skill is that he lays out the power of virtue as an ordinary habit, which it is not. “Strive manfully, habit is overcome by habit,” says “The Imitation of Christ,” a 13th century text. This is what the menfolk in the family do as described by Krivák.
At the beginning our author quotes Aeschylus’ Agamemnon as the historical reference to the novel’s grim loss of men at war. Part of that remembrance, “The Signal Flame,” is the title of the novel and reads this way in full: “So now I am still awatch for the signal-flame, the gleaming fire that is to harbinger news from Troy…”
It’s helpful to know the detail of this reference from a plot perspective. Aeschylus was the Greek tragedian who lived 500 years before Christ. His play “Agamemnon,” one of a trilogy, describes the return of King Agamemnon from his victory in the Trojan War. The story is told from the point of view of his wife, Clytemnestra, and of the Chorus, i.e., the townspeople. The play culminates in Agamemnon’s death and others, as well as with the prediction that Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, will return to avenge his father’s death.
It may be that the author presumes too much of his readers to know this Greek tragedy on their own. Still, the novel can be read without the reference, as the story carries the action of what the author calls “the convalescence of memory and hurt” with great conviction.
Bo, the oldest of the clan, returns from college in the winter of 1959, smitten with a girl named Ann Dvorak, a philosopher-type, whom he’s met at a great books college in Annapolis, Md. Then, out of the blue and while still on break, the college notifies students that Ann Dvorak has been killed. Ann was struck by a car on Christmas Eve as she walked home from midnight Mass in Parma, Ohio.
Bo is thunderstruck. The priest from Bo's parish, Father Rovnávaha, a Slovak, is a consolation to the family in all its desolations, including this latest.
Years pass and Bo is the responsible one, soldiering on, a wood carver and eventually owner of the lumber mill. He takes care of everybody in town. Bo remembers what his father told him earlier, “It’s discipline … that shapes us, no matter what the trade or how we ply it.” Sam, the younger brother, is a restless soul and always on the go. He enlists in the Army and is sent to Vietnam, where he’s a great leader of men but, in time, becomes an MIA, missing in action.
Bo, his mother Heather, and Ruth, who earlier married Sam, is pregnant with his child. They wait anxiously for word of Sam from the Army for months. Bo and Ruth even drive to see a soldier living in West Virginia who was with Sam when he disappeared in action. But to no avail.
Readers will be anxious to know if Bo and Ruth add a note of happiness to the story. It’s a gripping tale. I read it in two sittings.
Finally, the author can’t resist more echoes of Greek tragedy in “The Signal Flame.” Krivák writes a foreword that points to what’s to come, almost as a chorus would have done 2,500 years ago. About the family it begins this way:
“For three generations they were drawn from water made fatherless or orphaned altogether, though there was no augury, blind prophet or star that told of their fates. Each was raised to be disciplined and just. If there were books, they were well read. ... They were not inclined to speak of spiritual matters, but they believed that God had blessed them, for much had been made of what had been put into their hands. ... What they shared were the wars … fights for an ideal, for a homeland, for a people. These were the truths that bound the family to each other.”
And these are the homely truths that include the beauty of nature and the power of the ordinary that Andrew Krivák writes about so earnestly.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.