Book review: David Homel’s memoir reveals his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam and the life he found in Montreal

Lunging into the Underbrush – A Life Lived Backward, by David Homel, (Linda Leith Publishing), 247 pages.

Opposition to the U.S. War in Vietnam and the conscription of young men to sustain it rattled the foundations of American life in the late 1960s and early 1970s and led  thousands of them, including Chicago-born David Homel, to settle in Canada.

Recollections of those turbulent times is the kicking off point for Homel’s first non-fiction book, a remarkable, intimate, and deeply reflective memoir of his teenaged years in his home town and his eventually settling in Montreal, raising a family, and establishing himself as a successful novelist, literary translator, and creative writing teacher.

The son of a Jewish family of modest means, young David was determined to resist the draft and found a way out by accessing the classification known as Draft Board 000, revealed to him by a draft counselor.

This little-known escape hatch for American college students to study abroad was tailored, Homel notes, for the sons of industrialist, diplomats, and military personnel, and, as he says with a sarcastic wink, “ just the kind of young men not to be found in the jungles of Nam.”

Thanks to a student loan, he was able to live as a student in Paris, but it was a threadbare existence in a poor neighbourhood – no lunches at fancy bistros or afternoons sipping café au lait at the Deux Magots for 18-year-old David.

He depicts another side of the City of Light we rarely hear about, a vivid follow-up to his depiction of growing up in a hardscrabble part of Chicago, replete with ethnic tension and street fights.

The irony of the French sojourn is that when Homel and friends pack themselves into a car for a trip south en route to Morocco, an accident in southern Spain lands him at a U.S. Naval base for medical treatment.

This has a huge impact on the next stage of his life.

As he writes: “A casualty of my war against the war, I clutched at the arms of the military, saved by the machine I was fleeing from.”

Desperate for care he felt he could believe in, Homel is compelled to concede that at the time, “I loved the way my country sounded.” 

Another irony, as a result of his injury and the primitive care he received, Homel now had a “sure-fire medical exemption in my personal war against the war.”

Returning to Chicago in April, 1972, Homel staged a passive gesture of defiance by not reporting to his local draft board. He could have sought a medical exemption.

He could have contacted an uncle, a doctor who was eagerly signing letters for young men concluding they were subject to “easy trauma” and therefore unfit to serve.

Though he would not have admitted it at the time, Homel concedes today that though determined to resist he also was consumed by guilt. 

And by not reporting to his local draft board, as required, he again “plunged himself into the underbrush,” figuratively, just as he had ended up involuntarily in the underbrush following the accident in Spain.

He got a job, quite physically demanding, at a local meatpacking plant but after he had what he describes as a breakdown, finally got his uncle to sign a letter seeking a medical exemption, and the draft board granted him 4F status – the exemption that could only be revoked in a national emergency.

And unlike many among the thousands of Americans who broke U.S. law at the time in evading the draft or in some cases deserting, Homel ended up in Toronto as a university student, and soon realized there was no going back.

“I came to see the U.S. as a patient that does not know how to get better,” he writes.

In 1980, in the unsettling climate of the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty, Homel moved to Montreal, which at the time, might have seemed like cultural suicide, for an anglo with French as a second language.

Homel thrived in Montreal, a city “that has always been open and generous to me.”

The final section of the book is a collection of reflections on ageing, physical exercise, and the curse of retirement for someone who has led an active life and confronted many challenges. 

Among the most touching are the words of a friend, unnamed, considered beautiful, successful in her field, who had lost a husband, but now doubts she can find a new partner.

“Who would want this body in its current states of disrepair?” she asks.

And she wisely observes that men’s preoccupation with “performance” mirrors   women’s body image concerns.

There are no answers to our inevitable decline, but perhaps the route may be easier if we stay “playful and self-forgiving, generous to the selves we have become,”  Homel opines.

His memoir leaves us with much to ponder.