Pete Hautman’s Mr. Was is not a book I’d ever really think to pick up for myself, had it not come on the recommendation of a friend. On the surface, it seems like a story about spousal abuse and time travel. But it’s also a poignant story about loss, betrayal, and the impact of war on individuals. (And also spousal abuse. It’s bad, folks.) Spoilers to follow…

In 1993, Jack Lund’s grandfather Skoro (his mother’s father) is dying in a place called Memory, Minnesota. Jack and his mom go to visit him in the hospital (extra uncomfortable since Jack has not seen the man since he was a baby), where the first thing Skoro does is try to choke Jack to death, shouting “Kill you again.” Super fun for everyone, and thus contributing to anyone’s phobias about hospitals and/or the elderly. Jack lives, but Skoro dies in the attempt, and things basically go downhill from there:
– Jack’s mother Betty inherits Skoro’s house (called Boggs’s End, because the Boggs family disappeared from there) in Memory, but Skoro leaves his millions to charity, and not his family, for no particular reason.
– This lack of inheritance sets off Jack’s father, who is an alcoholic. In the beginning of the novel, he’s something of a pseudo-cheery drunk, then a grumpy drunk, and by the time he learns he’s out of a cool two mil, but is saddled with an enormous, dull house that doesn’t even have a television, he’s definitely an angry drunk. His anger tends to manifest itself in a lot of yelling, but as you can guess, he escalates quickly.
– To escape one of his parents’ many fights, Jack goes off exploring Boggs’s End and finds a secret door that takes him back through time. There he meets Andie and Scud (Franklin Scudder), they have an adventure, then Jack wakes up the next day in his own (borrowed) bed and deems the whole thing a dream.
– Jack’s dad leaves in a huff, gets into a car accident, and enters AA somewhat against his will.
– I lied; the family moves back to Chiccago and things are actually pretty okay for like two years, until…
– Jack’s dad falls off the wagon, beats up Jack and Betty (told you it escalated), gets arrested, and Betty decides to flee to Memory, which really makes no sense because Jack’s dad knows where the house is and even Betty knows the system will fail her and he’ll get out of prison.
– Spoilers: the system fails her and he gets out of prison.
– Jack’s dad returns to Boggs’s End and claims everything is hunky-dory, but Jack talks to the old dude who works at the only bar in town (Memory is a small town and it seems to be just a corner store and a bar), who doesn’t know that Jack’s dad is an abusive alcoholic and cheerfully lets it slip that oh yeah, Jack’s dad is drinking again, whee! (He drinks fancy lemon vodka, because why not.)
– Another fight, Jack’s dad leaves then immediately comes back via plowing his car through the front door, and then beats Betty Lund’s head in with a baseball bat.

You remember I mentioned time travel? Well, Jack decides the best solution for this mess is to escape through the secret door in the yellow bedroom (the fifty-year door), and goes back to 1941, thinking he’ll wait out the next half-century and save his mom from being murdered. Noble, yeah, but kinda makes you wish there was also a five-year door. Jack is fleeing the scene of a murder, so I suppose you have to forgive him for not thinking clearly, but there are some rules of time travel, namely, don’t carry around quarters from the present day because people will think they’re counterfeit and chase you out of town when you try to buy the first volume of Batman, and don’t wear nineties Nikes and nylon jackets because people are gonna notice. Yo.

Jack ends up begging for work and a place to stay at friend Andie’s dad’s farm. This is good, because it gives him work and purpose, but bad, because he ends up falling for Andie, who is dating Scud. They get into the kind of adventures teenagers get into in the nineteen forties, falling down in pig poop, putting things in tailpipes, accidentally letting it slip that you know things about Pearl Harbor, which hasn’t happened yet. Until of course it does!

The novel is broken into four sections (which an author’s note explains is a series of four notebooks found washed ashore) (I am not totally sure if this is a legit story, or the author is just trying to insist this is all real to enhance its effect, I suppose it doesn’t matter): Jack’s narrative up until Pearl Harbor, a notebook of Jack’s letters to Andie while stationed on Guadalcanal, a series of documents from the veteran’s hospital where an amnesiac man we can only assume is Jack is stationed post-Guadalcanal, and then the amnesiac’s narrative picking up again in the nineties after decades of isolation and self-imposed silence. In essence, Scud loves Andie but Andie does not love Scud; before the two boys are sent off to Japan, Andie confesses to Jack that she would rather like to be with him if they make it back alive. Jack writes her a series of unsent letters, which eventually Scud finds, because Jack is somewhat of a moron and Scud is slightly suspicious, seeing as how up until the war, Jack was living with Andie and her dad. Scud decides the backdrop of world war is the perfect place to seek his revenge and beats the everloving crap out of Jack and leaves him for dead. Only Jack winds up in the veterans’ hospital with a scarred face, one eye missing, PTSD out the wazoo, and some amnesia on top of that, answering only to “Mr. Was.” (Hey, that’s the title of the book!) But wait! Mr. Was also happens to be the name of a vagrant living in Memory around the time of Grandfather Skoro’s funeral, a mysterious sort that the Lund parents claimed was horribly scarred, but that Jack never saw. Here, to avoid uncomfortable scenarios when time-traveling, one apparently cannot see one’s past or future self. Because when Mr. Was finds himself in Memory in 1993, he never sees young Jack. Hautman also plays with the effects of memory, as Mr. Was’s memories (though admittedly scattered because of the post-war amnesia) of being Jack resurface, he cannot remember anything that hasn’t actually happened yet in 1993. So after fifty years of waiting, he cannot remember that he has to save his mother, and she ends up murdered anyway. Added bonus: he now gets to stick around (when Jack had already fled) and witness his own father hanging himself out of guilt. WHEE.

This is where things get tricky: it turns out that Scud came back to Minnesota alive, took his mother’s maiden name of Skoro, married Andie, and lived in Boggs’s End. And then in the eighties, shortly after baby Jack was born, Andie receives from some very nice and apologetic Japanese Jack’s notebook that had been left behind on Guadalcanal, in which he confesses everything: his love for Andie, Scud’s murder attempt, the whole truth about the fifty-year door. So Andie goes through the door. And then nineties Mr. Was also goes through the door and finds her and they live happy, wrinkly lives on a boat or something. There is a boat in there somewhere, but the enormity of the narrative gets lost in my mind when I have to focus on the fact that he’s conducting a romantic relationship with his biological grandmother. It’s fine, it’s totally fine. At least he’s not his own granddad, right? Right?

I like the rules of time-travel set up here, although it does tend to prevent you from doing anything you might have time-traveled to do, like save your mom from getting bludgeoned to death. Although theoretically you could send someone else in the past to prevent it? In any case, after reading Jack’s notebook, Skoro uses the door to go back and play the proverbial ponies, investing in all kinds of stock that leaves him as rich as it does, and also explaining why he leaves nothing to the Lunds. Andie does that, on her jaunt through time. Although there is a very peculiar character Pinky, who Mr. Was comes across, who explains that they’re ill-gotten gains and the Scudder/Skoro/Lund family will never profit from them. True, but isnt’ enough for them to just be poor and not dead? Time travel be a harsh mistress.

And of course the book points out that WWII is not Jack’s war. He lies about his age and joins the Marines, so clearly he feels some level of responsibility or duty, although he partially does it because Scud talks him into it, and partially because he thinks Andie won’t respect him if he doesn’t fight. He also thinks that anything he does on a personal level doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, since the war will play out the way it’s meant to play out. But he clings to the refrain that it isn’t his war:

I think I’m getting delirious, Andie. All my life, until I got to this nightmare island, I thought of the Japanese as people who made nice cars and cameras. Now I think of them as vicious, evil beasts. That can’t be right, can it? I mean, they’re just a bunch of scared kids like me who wish they were back home. But how can you like someone who is trying to kill you?

Sooner or later they’ll be here, Andie, and I’m going to kill as many of them as I can, but I’m going to die. I wish I could just explain to them that this isn’t my war. Their war is lost, and they should all go home. We should all go home.

Of course, what does happen in the war does effect his own past and future, so in many ways, it very much is his war. It’s interesting that he goes into such a large-scale event thinking his contribution is meaningless, but his presence effects his small-scale life in a very direct way.