John H. Brown is a familiar figure to many West Virginians. He’s the founder of Brown Communications, a Charleston public relations firm now headed by his son Bryan, and he’s been a wine and food columnist for more than 30 years, writing for the Gazette-Mail and other publications.
In 2018, Brown embarked on a different kind of writing when he published a slim paperback novel, “Augie’s War,” inspired by his own war-time experiences in Vietnam.
Like Joseph Heller in “Catch-22,” the classic novel about the deadly World War II air war, Brown penned a novel that made clear the insanity of war in all its grim and gritty horror. Young Augustino “Augie” Cumpton, born into a big Italian-American family in West Virginia, is lucky to escape with his life when the Viet Cong attack his base. Many of his buddies aren’t as fortunate.
Now, Brown has published “Augie’s World.” A follow-up to his first novel, it details the ex-servicemen’s experiences when he returns home in 1970.
Augie is, of course, thrilled to be reunited with his family and friends. He takes special delight in being able to again enjoy the tasty Italian dishes he grew up eating. (If you like to cook, you might want to turn to the back of Brown’s book and check out the real recipes from the author’s family, which he attributes to the novel’s fictional family.)
But Augie’s return home is far from idyllic. He may have returned from Vietnam physically unscathed, but like many returning Vietnam vets, he’s been emotionally and psychologically traumatized by his battlefield experiences. Almost nightly he’s visited by the worst sort of nightmares, which wake him up screaming. And like many other troubled vets, he turns to alcohol and drugs for the temporary comfort they provide.
Today, we would say Augie is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but in the 1970s the problem was still called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.”
Augie’s maternal grandfather, Salvatore Emilio Costanza, worked hard in the coal mines, saved every penny he could and used that savings to open a little business, the Chestnut Baking Company. Almost everyone in the family, including Augie, has worked at the bakery at one time or another.
Memories of the bakery and its daily parade of colorful customers provided Augie with happy memories he could retreat into as a way of hanging on to his sanity in war-torn Vietnam.
About a third of the way into “Augie’s World,” the novel takes a dark turn. Now that he’s back home, Augie has resumed work at the bakery. Then something happens there that presents a new and perilous problem for he and his family.
Unbeknownst to Augie, the mafia has been demanding protection money from his two uncles who run the bakery. The two have refused to pay. Unwilling to take no for an answer, a mobster shows up at the bakery and begins roughing up one of the uncles.
Augie grabs a big wooden paddle used to take the hot bread out of the oven and delivers two hard licks to the mobster’s head, knocking him unconscious. The mobster is in a coma for days and then dies. Bent on extracting revenge, the furious mobsters demand the family turn Augie over to them. And for good measure, they kidnap Augie’s girlfriend. Holding her hostage, they threaten to “rearrange her pretty face” unless they get Augie.
How Augie’s family goes about outwitting the bad guys, successfully rescuing both Augie and his girlfriend, would make a great Hollywood movie and provides an ingenious, if implausible, end to an entertaining novel.
“Augie’s World” (Black Rose Writing, $18.95) is available wherever books are sold or from Amazon.com.