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BOOK REVIEW: Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker

T. Jefferson Parker, a New York Times bestselling author lauded for his vivid crime thrillers, has written what he calls his first literary novel, Full Measure (St. Martin’s Press, October 7, 2014). The novel is ostensibly the story of Patrick Norris, a young Marine returned from war in Afghanistan to face the struggle of transitioning to civilian life in his hometown, bucolic Fallbrook, Calif. Norris’ ranching parents and much of the community have just suffered devastating losses to a wildfire. Norris’ older bother Ted, a troubled ne’er-do-well, is entangled in a personal battle to gain recognition for doing something right in an unaccepting world. And the town is disturbed by the ramifications of the hit-and-run death of a 10-year-old Latino.

In keeping with Parker’s writing tradition, Full Measure is rich with mysteries: Will Patrick survive the emotional repercussions of war to find peace and love? Who started the wildfire? Will Patrick’s parents be able to salvage their burned avocado ranch? Who hit and killed the jaywalking child on Mission Road? What is the “big important thing” Ted is determined to accomplish?

But in contrast to Parker’s other books, Full Measure’s antagonists are not craven drug lords or sadistic henchmen fighting gory battles along the U.S.-Mexico border. They are the flaws, the contradictions, the hurdles that the characters confront internally. Even the return to Fallbrook of a racist activist is a relatively benign act, given meaning only when Ted engages him in his secret plan. These internal conflicts lend Full Measure abundant tension; the characters are true; the drama, compelling; the climax, shocking and poignant. But none of this is what the book is really about.

At its heart, Full Measure is about the quest for identity, for self, the desire to be an integral part of something in the place one calls home. Patrick knew who he was and with whom he belonged while he was in Afghanistan, but without the focus of war and the camaraderie of warriors, he flounders from PTSD flashback to flashback, from memory to memory of killed brethren, from his desired future to his father’s expectations. Patrick finds himself lost in what had been the familiar territory of his childhood.

Similarly, his father is desperate to keep his ranch—his identity—alive, to maintain a legacy to be handed off to the next generation and the next.

And then there’s Ted. It is Ted who, despite his psychosis, comes closest to articulating the book’s heartbeat: “I felt damned my whole life. But now my big important thing is half accomplished. I’m almost done. I’ll be remembered for it. And it will make the world better.”

In the course of telling this family’s stories, Parker defines their world, the place they call home, with intimate kindness. Fallbrook is represented in the novel, for the most part, as it is today: a town where eccentrics stand out, unable to blend into an urban throng, where small businesses come and go with the seasons, where social connections are incestuous, where memories of the town’s evacuation during the 2007 wildfires remain fresh. The author peppers the text with mentions of well-known Fallbrook locations, in which the book’s action takes place, and local folks who keep the town on its toes. There’s Las Brisas and Rosa’s and Robertito’s, in perpetual competition for the best tacos. Joe’s Hardware and Happy Jug Liquor and “Vince Ross Village Square.” Café des Artistes and charming host Michael. Los Jilgueros Preserve and Café Primo and the Econo Suites. A local reporter from the “Village View.” That awful intersection on Mission that really needs a traffic light (and final got one after the novel’s completion). Even the Fallbrook Democratic Club receives a nod.

Parker has rendered this ranching and bedroom community with artful craft, incorporating its socio-economic disparity, its survival of the 30-year residency of an internationally notorious racist, and its proximity to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Parker’s Fallbrook is, in his novel and in fact, a community to which wounded warriors struggle to return and thrive, amid diverse people who unite in the face of adversity, whether natural or manmade.

Full Measure is fiction with a true heart, one that beats of the search for self in a town that will be familiar to people across the nation. And there’s one more thing: Full Measure is surely a love letter—from Parker to Fallbrook and those who come home to it.

The public is invited to join T. Jefferson Parker at Writers Read at Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission Road, on Tuesday, September 23, at 6 p.m., for an early launch of Full Measure. The novel will be available for sale ($28.07, including tax) and signing. Parker will also be visiting Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego on Thursday, October 9 at 7p.m., and the Encinitas Library at 12:15 p.m. on Sunday, October 18.

Click here to read more about T. Jefferson Parker and Full Measure.