A Review of The Gopher King, by Gojan Nikolich (Five Stars)
The full title of Gojan Nikolich’s recently released first-person narrative, told from the point of view of a traumatized Vietnam war veteran, is The Gopher King: A Dark Comedy. The “Dark Comedy” part of the title had me prepared for something along the lines of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, one of my favorite novels.
Yet early on, it becomes clear that the narrator suffers from PTSD and has inexplicably survived a sincere (if thwarted) suicide attempt. These things hardly pave the way for comedy, dark or otherwise, and I can’t say I chuckled nearly as much reading The Gopher King as I did when I read Catch-22, another bizarre and comedic take on the horrors of war. But where Catch-22 takes a broader view of the insanity of war, The Gopher King puts it all in the head of one man – the narrator, Stan Przewalski, a Vietnam veteran whose wartime experiences have left him as emotionally unmoored as a human being can be. By comparison, Stan is more Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now! than Catch-22’s Captain Yossarian, albeit a far more likeable version.
There is a lot going on in this novel – enough that every reader can probably walk away with a different take on it. For me it is the story of a man who wrestles with self-recrimination so intense that he wants to die (and tries to), but who also has within him a desperate need to survive, a thing he cannot do without a serious encounter with redemption for what he has willingly and unwillingly done as a soldier. PTSD has become hardwired into the man, ever-present and inescapable even decades beyond the war that scarred him and despite enough medication to take down a charging elephant.
Stan is the owner and editor of the local newspaper in a rural Colorado town he calls home. He is also the paper’s photographer and chief reporter. Symbolic of Stan’s inability to escape the past is his insistence on putting the paper together using an ancient linotype machine that sets lines of text with molten metal. He uses real film and a darkroom, and he pastes the paper together the old-fashioned way, eschewing the simplicity and less painful efficiency of modern technology.
Frequent trips to the VA hospital leave Stan amply supplied with medications meant to tamp down the worst effects of his PTSD and keep him from going completely haywire. But when his small town and the environs of Bellyache Mountain meet the intrusion of a modern resort development, pitted against the history and mores of a time-honored way of life, the world itself goes haywire, leaving Stan hopelessly caught between numbing the past with his VA prescriptions and trying to unravel a web of murder and arson. Struggling to emerge from the conflict is Stan, as a deeply wounded hero.
Nikolich is a masterful writer, so when he takes the reader into Stan Przewalski’s memories, he imparts a visceral sense of the imagery that has wrecked his main character’s mind. I can’t think of a character in any novel whose inner turmoil is so convincingly and compellingly portrayed. Something has to break. And it does, with the break coming in the form of an impossible community of sentient prairie dogs, with their warlike leader Chaz, the Gopher King himself, taking over large chunks of Stan’s world, even amidst the chaos taking place on Bellyache Mountain.
I won’t give away the surprises that the Gopher King brings into Stan’s life because there’s too much fun in the discovery. But the encounters clearly come from that part of Stan that wants to live, that needs redemption to come in the form of living, not dying. More than anything, Stan needs to find a way to forgive himself.
Stan’s adventures with the prairie dogs, alternatively labeled gophers and even rats by Stan, lure him from the downward spiral that can only lead to a self-destructive end. If you believe it is all in Stan’s mind, then you have a tale of a desperate man losing his sanity to find it. If you believe the Gopher King’s prairie dogs are real, you’ll wish there were more around like them. We could all use the distraction.
Either way, The Gopher King is a fine novel – one that begs to be read and then re-read to peel back the layers you probably missed the first go around.