Puttnam Douglas Steward isn’t having an identity crisis—he is one. To his father Carl, he’s a disappointment, and has been since the day he came home from the hospital.
To his mother, he’s “Mama’s Boy,” and will forever be nothing less and nothing more.
The Army thinks he’s a hero, having single-handedly saved his troops from an ambush when they stumble upon a major, unknown supply line in Vietnam, then exposing a major Soviet espionage ring in the U.S.
His brother-in-law Survival, a career military man, thinks Putt’s weak—a mere cadet—no matter how high he rises in the Army’s ranks or how much national celebrityhood he achieves.
Only Milton, Putt’s college friend and environmental activist, and Putt’s sister Mary see that something is deeply confused about Puttnam Steward. Yet neither of them knows that the only time Putt ever truly feels happy is when he wears a woman’s clothes and becomes, for a brief, fleeting moment, someone else. And they don’t know how much that disgusts him.
Unable to escape the expectations of the people around him, Putt’s never quite reached a true understanding of himself. After he pokes a boy’s eye out with a rock at the age of six, he’s briefly proud for having done what his father had always taught him—stand up for himself—but his father responds with unalloyed hate. At 18, Putt proudly escapes Norfolk to study at the University of Virginia, but a drunken night at an off-campus bar forces him to question his own sexuality for the first time.
As he drowns in expectations and disappointments, the matter of who he is—who he truly is—eludes him. Except for one thing: He’s a freak. He has to be. It’s the only answer that makes sense.
And through it all, there’s his relationship with father Carl, the hobbyist boatman whose creations always find their way to the bottom of the river. A man who’s never been close with Putt, Carl feels nothing but disappointment in his son—disappointment he never feels or expresses about his daughter. Maybe it’s because Carl’s growing old and weak. Maybe it’s due to his inability to build a boat, to make his knee work, or to hug his son. Whatever the reason, Carl is certain that their dreadful disconnect must be Putt’s fault alone.
In the Wake of the Boatman is a brilliant drama, stirringly and sensitively told, about the elusiveness of identity. Another important novel from one of America’s most praised and accomplished novelists, it’s a masterpiece that won’t soon be forgotten.