The year is 1968 and the Vietnam War is at its height. William Carson, a World War II veteran teaching in a small New England boarding school, has for more than two decades been haunted by nightmares whose content he has never shared with his wife, Anne, or their two sons, Joshua, a Marine on active duty in Vietnam, and Andrew, an ROTC college senior bound for active duty following graduation. When Joshua is reported missing in combat, the web of secrets and denial that has kept the family together for more than twenty years begins to unravel as Anne and William face the possible loss of their sons and Andrew must confront the tangle of love, obligation, and loyalty that he feels toward his country, his father, his brother, his mother, and himself. Nothing Left to Lose is a story of betrayal across generations – of fathers who send sons to war and mothers who let them go – and the redeeming power of love and forgiveness.
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Praise for Nothing Left to Lose
Tragedy seems to beget more tragedy. Nothing Left to Lose is the story of the Carson family, as they cope with the pressures that come with the Vietnam War in 1968, as their son vanishes while fighting in the war. Wounds from World War II emerge, and the family seems to begin to implode upon itself as generations are pitted against one another, Nothing Left to Lose is a riveting read that will prove quite hard to put down, highly recommended.” Midwest Book Review
In Nothing Left To Lose, the hard teachings of the Vietnam War are reflected in one family’s anguished choices, and with a depth of compassion that reveals fresh meaning today. This beautiful and engrossing novel lets us see what war-making costs the soul of a nation, and especially its men. Here we find both a chronicle of an age and a prayer for our future, perfectly tuned to this historical moment.” Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self
That is a testament to the skill of Johnson, who has crafted a beautifully written novel filled with believable characters who take believable but brave actions.” The VVA Veteran, national magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America, reviewed by David Willison. To read the review, click here. Please note: The review reveals some key elements of the plot.
Allan Johnson’s mournful yet ultimately hopeful novel captures beautifully what history textbooks always miss: that wars overseas exact enormous emotional and familial costs at home, and that for men especially, it can be just as heroic to resist wars as it is to fight in them.” Jackson Katz, Ph.D., creator of the video, Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, and author of The Macho Paradox
Like all good literature, Johnson’s latest novel is seductive because it deals with issues larger than ourselves. Beautifully written, Nothing Left to Lose is courageous, compelling, and provocative. But it isn’t pessimistic. Because of the author’s artistic insight and sensitivity, the Carson family learns, grows, forgives, and – above all – reaches a degree of understanding in the face of immense pain and loss. The book will strike a chord that resonates with readers.” The Resident (CT and RI), reviewed by Roger Zotti.
This beautifully written novel turns war’s fantasies of glorious heroism into an elegy for all who sail the “Sea of Faith” that Matthew Arnold describes in “Dover Beach.” ForeWord Reviews, reviewed by Elizabeth Breau
Nothing Left to Lose is the captivating story of the effects of war on families. It shows the emotional costs and provides insight into the sacrifices and hardships that these individuals face. The book not only has characters who went to war, but also contains elements of the anti-war movement. Johnson does a wonderful job with character development and drawing the reader in on a personal level. The book is one that you will find difficult to tear yourself away from once you start reading” Rebecca’s Reads, reviewed by Kam Aures
Johnson provides fascinating insights into issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. This novel should appeal to those who like their families, as Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, unhappy in their own way. Book clubs will find plenty to discuss with all the issues raised.” Library Journal
To Purchase a Copy
Nothing Left to Lose is available in hardcover and paperback editions online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million, and directly from the publisher, Plain View Press. The Kindle ebook edition is available both for purchase and for free rental to Amazon.com prime customers. Copies can also be ordered through any bookstore. Libraries may order directly from Baker and Taylor or Ingram.
To listen to Allan’s interview on NPR, click here.
Q&A with the Author
What is the novel about?
Nothing Left to Lose is the story of an American family thrown into crisis during the Vietnam War when they face the possibility of losing their sons. It’s about generations of fathers who return from war so traumatized from what they’ve seen and done that they never talk about it, leaving the next generation of sons to decide about war without knowing what it is truly about – what’s at stake, what they’re getting into – before it’s too late. And it’s about mothers and wives who play their own role in a betrayal on which war depends.
It is about the struggle of every parent to protect their children even as they must give them up to the world, including the nightmare fear of outliving them. It is about the consequences of passing on to children what the parents’ generation has not resolved or healed in their own lives. It is about the struggle of each new generation to see clearly the legacy being passed on to them before it’s too late to choose differently than generations that went before.
It is about the family history that lies behind every soldier who shows up on the battlefield – or the draftee who refuses to go or the deserter who runs away – a history we usually do not know about unless it is our own. And it is about the families who must receive the soldiers coming home, the soldiers and their wounds of every kind, bringing home the son or the brother or the husband and bringing home the wound, and how all of this is lived out across generations, from one war to the next, until something happens to make the past no longer acceptable as a template for the present or the future.
What made you write the novel?
I’ve been working to understand men’s violence in all its forms for many years, first as a sociologist and now as a novelist, in this and my previous book, The First Thing and the Last, a story about domestic violence. Forty years ago, during the Vietnam War, I saw a father and son interviewed on the nightly news in Detroit – the son was resisting the draft – and I suddenly became aware of how powerful the relationship between fathers and sons can be when it comes to masculinity and violence and war. I never forgot what I saw going between the young man and his father, how complex these situations are and how important are the ties between parents and children making such profound moral choices about how to live and the kind of human being they will be, choices that echo across generations.
You’ve written several nonfiction books and now two novels. How do you think fiction affects your message in comparison with nonfiction?
Probably the biggest difference is that I don’t consciously write novels in order to send a message. That isn’t what’s on my mind. I write because I feel compelled to tell the story that comes to me. That said, given who I am and the kinds of things that matter to me, it’s inevitable that readers will find more than just a story there.
The book explores generations of family and both the secrets and redemptive qualities that often define that bond. What is it about this premise that makes for such compelling storytelling?
Those relationships are at the core of who we are, including the unfinished and unresolved parts of ourselves, the things we wish we could undo but cannot, the wounds that never seem to go away even as the scars change color and shape, the things we long for but will never have, the loss that remains. At the same time, those ties are the source of our deepest capacity to love and to be loved, to feel that we belong, that we have a place, that we will not be abandoned.
Was your story outlined from beginning to end or did your characters lead the way?
When I started to write, I knew how the story began and how it ended and had a rough idea of how it got from one to the other. But characters will only do what is in their nature, which is why I have a small sign on my writing desk with the word, ‘Listen,’ to remind me whose story it is.
How deeply does Nothing Left to Lose tie in to our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
For all their apparent differences, all wars are the same. That we do not see that is what makes war continue generation after generation. They are the same in what they do to people’s lives and what it takes to get men in particular to fight in them. They are the same in the damage they do to those who fight and to those who find themselves in the way and to the families from which soldiers come. Each generation of combat veterans has very little to say about the horror of what they have witnessed and done and what was done to them. The consequence of silence is a profound betrayal of the generations that follow who will go off to the next war – and whose families will send them – without knowing what it is until it is too late. And then the soldiers will return to parents and spouses and children, and families will struggle to find a way to go on, largely invisible and unknown to the world outside and, in many ways, to one another. And so the cycle continues.
Are you saying through your novel that trauma is hereditary, that even if the sons didn’t go to war they would still carry the trauma of their fathers?
I believe trauma from the past shows up in all of us, especially when it takes the form of massive violence. We may not recognize it for what it is, but it’s there. War and other forms of mass violence do profound damage to what Martin Buber called ‘the ground of being,’ on which all life depends. One way or another, massive trauma makes its way into the psyche of every human being.
This book looks at World War II and Viet Nam. Did you serve in Viet Nam? How do you know it so well?
I was never in Vietnam. To the extent that what I’ve written rings true, it’s because, like every writer, I’ve spent a lifetime reading and watching and listening so that I can draw on the human power of empathy to put myself in the place of someone who isn’t me. And I work to open myself to the echoes and reverberations of collective trauma that are all around us.
Both of your novels contain what some have deemed as overly graphic content. How would you respond to this? Is it worth jeopardizing realism to appeal to a broader readership?
Like every serious writer, I try to write what is true in a way that is as real as possible. I don’t think there’s anything excessive in either of these novels. Some have said that parts of The First Thing and the Last were “too real,” but I’m not sure what that means, if it’s even possible to be overly real. Perhaps ‘too close to home’ is what they mean, but that’s just where I want to be as an artist, as close to home, to the bones of our existence, as I can get. I think that’s where art is supposed to take us, where we might otherwise not go on our own because we don’t see it or we’re too afraid, but where we need to go in order to find in the truth of our own and other people’s lives what it means to be a human being.
So, the answer to the second question is simply, No. Never. I wouldn’t see the point.
What do you want the reader to take away from the novel?
A deeper sense of who we are, what it means to be a human being, what that calls on us to be and do. And to question what makes war possible – even inevitable – time after time, and the terrible toll it takes on people’s lives, the few we know about, the ones we see, and the many we do not.