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The Volunteer

3.37  ·  Rating details ·  344 ratings  ·  93 reviews
A long-awaited new novel from Salvatore Scibona, National Book Award Finalist, the epic story of a restless young man who is captured during the Vietnam War and pressed into service for a clandestine branch of the United States government

A small boy speaking an unknown language is abandoned by his father at an international airport, with only the clothes on his back and
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 5th 2019 by Penguin Press
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Average rating 3.37  · 
Rating details
 ·  344 ratings  ·  93 reviews

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Angela M
Aug 09, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars
This was not an easy book to read. It’s a complex story, but my incentive to continue was the opening of the story where we see the world through the mind and eyes of Janis, a 5 year old boy left alone by his father, Elroy in the airport at Hamburg, Germany. I had to know what would happen to him. The story changes course and moves back from Janis’ present to a farm near Davenport, Iowa where a young man, nicknamed by his parents, the Volunteer and called Vollie suddenly leaves his
Sep 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
An extremely intelligent page turner that’s as complex as they come. Nothing is as it seems. This one gripped me as I stayed awake till the break of dawn to finish. Nothing like what I expected.
Mike A.
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona is a solid work of contemporary literature and also a good read. I stayed up most of the night to finish it -- on a work night no less, so yea, it grabs! Mr. Scibona writes with a matter-of-fact judiciousness that feels sensitive even as it denies sentiment. There is no overt flourish, but the author's voice endows the reader's mind with insight's of deep intuitiveness only granted to some and only through experience. It is not without effort, but the ...more
Mar 26, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: dnf
I just didn’t find myself wanting to continue onwards. The beginning put me off a lot, and the main character didn’t seem that redeeming. I also don’t think I’m in the mood for a war novel right now... it’s rather dark.

I do think the writing is strong, so if you think this sort of book might be more up your alley, then definitely try it out!
Dec 20, 2018 rated it it was ok
I won this book in a Goodreads First Reads contest.

I really wanted to like this book. It had a promising storyline and I started to read it.

I have decided in 2019 to only read a few chapters of books that do not grab my attention. I do not want to waste my time struggling through a book that just does not suit me. This book falls into that category.

I had a hard time following the plotline. I usually can easily read even the most non-conventional plots in books but the writing in this one
James Murphy
Nov 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I suppose it's well known by now The Volunteer opens in the Hamburg airport. But then Scibona wildly diffuses his novel as if that 1st chapter is a Big Bang. For me, the novel didn't begin to coalesce again till p247. But the narrative bringing us to that point is made of prose which propels itself with the relentless purpose of a locomotive, stitching all the elements together neatly as a zipper.

That relatively quiet 1st chapter, fraught as it is with an abandoned child, abruptly erupts into
Jun 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is stunning in many ways -- the quality of the writing and the sweep of the story that it tells are astounding. Scibona writes perfect sentences, and is also able to create some truly memorable characters. I want to give this book 5 stars (the writing is that good, and the ambition is enormous), but in the end for me there was a certain lack of humanity in several of the protagonists that kept me from being able to emotionally connect with the story. I realize, of course, that part of ...more
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was ok
I got my hands on an ARC through the variety box delivered to my work back in October.
I read about a hundred pages and had to put it down. DNF.
The premise was....enough to pick the book up, I guess. But my investment existed exclusively with the "protagonist's" (if we can call him that) son. I didn't have much investment in him or his motives. To me, he was one-dimensional - he was a better representative of love and praise for the male ideal and the garbage excuses men use for why they idolize
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
One of my least favorite books that I managed to keep reading. There were just too many words. And I liked words. But these words were jumbled up like a puzzle in an attempt to be descriptive and honestly there were times when I I had no idea what I was reading. And after all that slogging, the ending sucked too.
The writing is brilliant and effusive. The story was pointless. I kept waiting and hoping for all of the misery and dreadfulness to be in service of something, but in the end there was nothing.
Jan 19, 2019 rated it liked it
When I received an ARC of this book I read most of it over lunch breaks, and annoyed my co-workers by constantly changing my mind about this book. Did I like it, or did I hate it? Was a piece of misogynist war-porn , or a complicated reflection on men and their influences? I had to spend a few days processing this book, which is what led me to giving it a reluctant three stars. Something that made me think so much earns an extra star, even if I didn't like what the book ultimately had to say.

Stream of consciousness as a self-conscious tediously useless genre been attempted since tropic of cancer. But Scibona has found a way to embed exquisitely poignant jewels amidst the litter to make this a worthy journey. His masterful song of the eternal human struggle suspended twixt hope & futility, tenderness & murder, banal & serene, crushing guilt & unlimited grace makes worthy prayer to the conundrum of the lotus & the mud. Painful to read, it's bardo journey of ...more
Josef Miyasato
Aug 13, 2019 rated it liked it
I give this is 3.85 out of 5. I wanted to love this novel. In many parts I did. The caveat I'll give this book is that I listened to it. I could never see the language. With this book you need to. However, perhaps it would have distracted me from giving an honest review. The writing is that good in parts. It's like a beautiful woman. She will distract you from a dozen flaws. And this book has them.

In no particular order I'll give my gripes:

A) Not all writing serves the plot.
The fact that
Zohar -
Apr 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
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The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona is a generational saga, spanning about 100 years in which the effects of the Vietnam War are felt. Mr. Scibona is an award winning American author and writer of short stories.

A young boy is stranded at Hamburg Fuhlsbuettel Airport in 2010. He speaks no German and it seems as if he was abandoned.

Vollie Frade, nicknamed “Vollie” because he volunteered for the war instead of being drafted,
Oct 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Some of John Steinbeck's best-known work focuses on characters dwelling at the margins of society. The characters that inhabit this, Scibona's second novel, are similarly marginal. This book, though, if it belongs in that outsider tradition of American Literature, is a latter day example. It is a distinctly post-war novel, not only in the literary sense of the term, but also in the societal sense, wherein mobility is casual rather than epic. The Family Joad's journey is an uprooting. Here, the ...more
Chris Wharton
A new name for me, and an impressive voice. The author’s second novel, it follows a twisting route through and around America’s wars of the past half century (and, briefly, into future ones) through some unlikely characters who make up sort of a family: Vollie, the survivor of three enlistee Marine tours in Vietnam, including Khe Sanh in 1968 and a later black ops mission into Cambodia that has lifelong consequences for him; Louise, a survivor of a 1970s free love commune in the New Mexico ...more
c2 cole
May 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: c2s-books
A number of pages in, I was thinking this might be my first "real" 5-star read since Dec. 2016. On my personal list, where I can be more discriminating, I gave this a 3.5, which maybe I should change to a 3.8. I'd "taken" Scibona's online class where he discusses the Reader-Writer Arc and fell in love with him, but unfortunately that arc didn't quite overlap for me. That gap is probably why I rated it lower. I just didn't understand most of the characters, but worse, what was going on or a ...more
Apr 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
A well imagined book. It was an informative read, that also told a fascinating story. Totally conceivable, totally unusual. Geographically this book brought me like a local to towns in Socorro, New Mexico, Queens, NYC, towns in Oklahoma, Texas, Connecticut, and in Germany, and brought me throughout Europe east-west-north and dragged me through Vietnam during the American war and touched into the Middle East. This book brought each character into full relief, and I was free to feel as I wished ...more
May 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
I finished page 1 and thought "wow, weird book." I finished page 422+ (pagination is unreliable on Kindle editions of late) and thought "wow, weird book." Which is not to say the intervening 400 some-odd (okay, mostly-odd) pages were uneventful: there's some sumptuous writing, some unfamiliar and unforgettable characters, and a series of desultory events which, with some effort, can be strung together into a "plot" if you're into that sort of thing. A US soldier abandons his semi-Slavic son in a ...more
Brenda A
Feb 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: shelf-awareness
The Volunteer is a very well written tale of his failures can compound until they have harsh consequences.

In short, unchecked mental illnesses build until actions can’t be reversed, and everyone is forced to deal with them. One of the worst offenders is also the one who must deal with the fallout the most in the latter half of the novel.

It’s a bit slow, which made it difficult to care for the characters for a long while. Vollie’s time in Vietnam, while interesting, lasted a bit too long and I
Ben Bush
Jun 24, 2019 added it
Shelves: read-in-2019
This put me in mind of Kushner's The Flamethrowers, Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life, and Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers. This book is probably not for everyone but I can't remember the last thing I read that was this ambitious. It gets at the berserk heart of America in the way that few books do, that brutal mercantilism or whatever it is. There's some terrifying vivid war writing in here.
Chaya Nebel
Dec 22, 2018 rated it liked it
I tried to get through this tortuously written novel and just could not make it. I had no interest in Vollie, not the way he is portrayed here, in sometimes confusing and contradictory ways. Any time a bit of writing makes me scratch my head and wonder what the motivations were for the character's actions, I know I'm dealing with an author who trades more in atmosphere, psychological ambiguity and obfuscation, all to the detriment of clarity and character. The writing style was a bit dense and ...more
Richard Bon
Jun 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
I will be thinking about this book for a long time. Scibona's characters, especially Tilly, his anti-hero protagonist, portray the effects of the American war machine, the ways in which people's lives are forever changed by war.

I would've given it 5 stars, but:
*I thought some parts could've been either edited out or more well developed, particularly those centered around Tilly's childhood.
*I wanted better closure on the fates of some key characters.

The writing itself is enjoyable to read, and
Jun 08, 2019 rated it liked it
I enjoyed some of the subplots of this book, but wouldn't say I enjoyed all of them, or totally understood why they coexisted in the same novel. The modern day ones were the hardest and most painful to read (the latter aspect definitely intentional), the middle-ground (60s-70s) a little less painful and a little easier to understand, and the farthest back maybe the best part of the book (though some of the hippie landscape of post-Vietnam was pretty vivid to read about).

The writing here was
Rebecca Rolfes
Apr 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A masterpiece, no other word for it. There are books that you don't want to end but this is that rare book that you want to re-read as soon as you finish. The prose is fluid, beautiful, evocative, unlike any other author. A character looks into a refrigerator and finds "nothing alive within the last year." The main character plays the piano, wanting to live in the world of numbers where music has been trying to tell him something important since he was a child. You see the prairie and the high ...more
Jun 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Names play a big role in The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona. They represent identity, heritage, and belonging for the three men at the heart of this novel. When these men are asked, “Who are you?” They might pause before they give their names because the names on their documents aren’t really who they are. Tilly has been living under an assumed name since the mid 1970s. Elroy was given a name by the members of a commune and was never told who his real father was. Willy was given his name by a ...more
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Volunteer begins with an enigma--a young boy is left abandoned at an airport, speaking an unintelligible language, with his father nowhere to be found. Who is this boy? How did he get here? Why? The answers to all these questions begin many years earlier with the story of Vollie Frade, who joined the Marine Corps during the height of the Vietnam War. We follow Frade through the jungles of SEA as he witnesses and partakes in the horrors of war, and their lasting aftermath. Salvatore Scibona ...more
Feb 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
so heads up: I won a free ARC from a Goodreads giveaway

Overall, while I absolutely enjoyed the book, it was uneven in places. there's this whole sequence that quickly advances through time but reads as though perhaps the author is suggesting it's a potential future rather than the one actually lived / but then it sort of solidifies that this speedily progression through life is in fact happening.

I didn't really like or care too much about either of the two male protagonists. Is that a problem?
Paula Yerke
Feb 07, 2020 rated it liked it
Did I love this or hate this? Was the writing good or too full of itself? I am still wondering.
- The story is very unique and I give it props for that.
-There is some beautiful sentences but must sentences go on for 1/2 a page? Doesn't good sentence structure exist anymore?
-The plot is very interesting and yet bizarre. It can be a confusing book to read with the continual jumping of time and place and characters.
-Some writing sure doesn't advance the plot and I found it sometimes annoying and
Christine Comer
Aug 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona is saga spanning about 100 years in which the effects of the Vietnam War are felt. I got totally immersed in this book and really enjoyed it. It takes various twists and turns, some of which I would never imagine. To me, this is what makes a book "real". Vollie is the main character. He volunteers for the war in effect, to find out who he is. We learn about him through his various stints he the war. He is portrayed as "anti-capitalist" and seems to shun all ...more
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He is an award-winning American novelist and short-story writer. He has won awards for both his novels and short stories, and was selected in 2010 as one of The New Yorker "Fiction Writers to Watch: 20 under 40"
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