The Trion Syndrome

  • By Tom Glenn
  • Apprentice House
  • 306 pp.
  • Reviewed by Robert Timberg
  • November 3, 2015

A man's life unravels as he is forced to deal with his time as a soldier in Vietnam.

Dave Bell is struggling to hold himself together. As this moving novel, The Trion Syndrome, begins, his family is crumbling. His wife, distraught upon learning of his sexual meanderings, expels him from their home and files for divorce. His teenage son and daughter, outraged by the pain he has caused their mother, refuse to see or speak to him.

Colleagues turn on him and he loses his position as a professor of German literature at a local college near his home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. And, at her lawyer’s insistence, his wife cancels credit cards and closes their joint bank account. He’s effectively broke. He finds a place to live, thanks to one of the few friends he has left, but it is little more than an upstairs storage closet in a second-hand bookstore.

In addition to his marital and financial problems, Bell is haunted by flashbacks and a hazy memory of an episode from his time as a soldier in Vietnam. Eventually, he remembers what he has spent years trying to forget: he had killed a Vietnamese child, mistaking the boy for an enemy combatant.

In Bell’s mind, the killing of the child blends with the myth of Trion, an ancient Greek demigod who disemboweled his infant son to demonstrate his ferocity. As a result, Bell comes to suspect he is Ungeminnt, unable to love or to be loved.

Tom Glenn, the author, is a Vietnam veteran, one whose time in-country was more extensive and colorful than most. For the better part of 13 years, he was a clandestine intelligence operative with both Army troops and Marines. His final departure from Vietnam came in the spring of 1975 when he was rescued under fire as North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed the streets of Saigon.

It seems evident that this book is meant to help Glenn come to grips with what he suggests were wartime activities that he later regretted and have since caused him recurring distress and nightmares. However, one shouldn’t label too much of this book as autobiography. The best writers, and Glenn is good, have great imaginations.

It would be a mistake as well to view this book as another wartime horror story and the author as just the latest haunted Vietnam vet who needs to bare his soul. Glenn is many things. He is, of course, a writer who has published two previous books. He is also a musician, a linguist (seven languages), and a caregiver, having spent five years working with AIDS patients. Currently he is working with troubled and dying veterans at the VA.

Glenn is a crisp writer. His dialogue is marvelous if often painful, never more so than in the conversations among husband, wife, son, and daughter. This reader had the uncomfortable feeling that he had tuned in to a soundtrack of the Bell family tearing itself apart. And Glenn’s plotting, though complicated, never comes across as contrived.

Months before Bell’s troubles began, Glenn tells us, he discovered an unpublished novella based on the Trion myth by the Nobel Prize-winning German author Thomas Mann. Now, with his world collapsing around him, Bell identifies more intensely with Trion, who in the tale is drowned by three female monsters dispatched by the vengeful goddess Hecate.

Bell flees north to Maine, where he takes a job as a gas station attendant, but he can’t escape his past. Tormented by memories of the killing in Vietnam and his recognition that his wife, kids, and nearly all his friends want nothing to do with him, he considers suicide by drowning, the manner in which Trion died at the hands of Hecate’s bloodthirsty minions.

Before he can carry out the act, though, a son he never knew existed — the child of a former lover whom Bell believed had gotten an abortion at his behest — tracks him down, identifies himself, and demands to be acknowledged.

The relationship that evolves between Bell and his illegitimate son, now a young man, is at the heart of the second half of the story. Glenn portrays that relationship masterfully. He allows it to unfold at its own pace, step-by-step, until the reader realizes that the antagonism with which Bell initially greeted the son has given way to something else: a mutual affection that becomes nothing less than strong familial love that is healing Bell and giving him a reason to live and possibly reclaim his life.

Like the author and his protagonist, I’m a Vietnam veteran, and to me this novel carried the ring of truth from start to finish.

Severely disfigured during combat in Vietnam, Robert Timberg transformed his life by becoming a distinguished journalist. The story of his journey, Blue-Eyed Boy, was published last year.

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