Of Ashes and Dust
By Roman, Ron
Roman’s debut is an apocalyptic story of anarchy and chaos upending America. Will Watson and Mark Mercotti are Vietnam vets and good friends, with a shared interest in UFOs and government secrecy—and at least one long-ago betrayal between them soon to be revealed. When Will lands a teaching job at Swenson College in Springvale, New Hampshire, he’s attracted to Kimiko Tanimoto, the new Korean-Japanese teaching assistant, in spite of the difference in their ages. With the government threatening to tighten gun laws, the residents of Springvale form the Liberty Militia to defend their right to own firearms, as the federal government lurches toward becoming a police state amidst a global conflict. The novel finds this trio, circa the turn of the millennium, striving to survive as their world dies.
Distinguished by sparkling prose and an immersive narrative style, Roman’s story of liberty and revolution offers readers more than a vision of an American dystopia and a terrifying global conflict, reflecting the faultlines of real-world politics. His descriptions of the state’s increasing encroachment on civil liberties have persuasive power, as does his plausible portrayal of the failure of governance and a gradual descent into anarchy. The subtle hints of Mark’s attraction for Will and Kimiko’s understated disapproval, perhaps instinctively sensing him as a rival, highlight a nuanced, even elegant portrayal of a relationship. Also delightful is the author’s depiction of petty rivalries in the English department.
“This is the story of survival, consummate survival,” narrator Watson announces early on, and Of Ashes and Dust assuredly is that, though its interests range widely, digging into UFO conspiracies, shocking secrets from the Vietnam era, and the urgent pain of facing grief and guilt. Unclassifiable, memorable, and offering, by its jolting end, surprisingly definitive answers about great coverups of the late 20th century. Will’s not always likable, but he is compelling.
Takeaway: A realistic and captivating novel about three people and their struggle to survive an apocalypse.
Great for fans of: Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman, Omar El Akkad’s American War.
The Korea Times
Reviewed by The Korea Times reporter No Kyung-min
Rarely can we say that we are not embroiled in the turbulence of power dynamics in our day-to-day lives. In every social structure, ranging from family to society, people interact with each other in one way or another, while maintaining different forms of relationships. Considering the variety of interests involved in many stages of negotiation and the conflict that erupts within or between social entities is inevitable. In this sense, frustration may come not when we are caught up in the vortex of social conflicts, but when we stay clear of them.
For Will Watson, the main protagonist of Ron Roman's debut novel, "Of Ashes and Dust," this frustration comes in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his participation in the Vietnam War. Albeit inexplicable, what he has to endure, as a war survivor, sees him riddled with guilt and pain. The Vietnam War is seared into his memory to the point where he "can never forget it," and yet he confesses that his mental exhaustion stems not from "hatred of others, but, rather, of himself."
Even if there is only so much a shattered ego can bear, the war-stricken Watson sublimates this soul-destroying energy. "This is the story, constructed from my own meticulous diary, of those who looked over the edge, saw the past, present, and future in one glance, and tried to carry on," Watson states with a will to narrate. He shifts his focus from himself to others to fight, love and ultimately to live.
Roman's motive for choosing to write about a Vietnam War veteran is based on his personal experience. "My motive for choosing a Vietnam War vet as the protagonist was simply the fact that I grew up during this conflict; indeed, I had been really affected by it emotionally. Two kids I went to high school with were killed in the war. Also, because of its time frame (1965-1975), this would be the historical period I'd be most conversant with. I was in the U.S. Army myself in 1975, right after the Vietnam War," Roman said in a written interview with The Korea Times, to which he has been a long-term contributor.
In fact, it is also part of his attempt to conjure up memories of the war and remind Korean readers of how much he and they interconnected through the historical event.
"Older Koreans will remember that 5,000 South Korean soldiers lost their lives in it as well. In that sense, readers, older ones at least, can react and reflect upon it personally, both mentally and emotionally," Roman added.
However, the novel does not just revolve around Watson's war memories as it continues to present many social issues relevant to global readers. Not only does it touch on Watson's hands-on experience in academia and prevalent controversies such as gun control, racism and feminism, but it also deals with events such as the global recession and frontline military provocations.
Regarding his portrayal of the political turmoil, the author noted "I intended to show political conflicts arising not just in the U.S. but pretty much throughout the rest of the world. I'd remind readers that the political hot-button issues facing us at the time of the Millennium, when the story takes place, are still very, very much with us today: the Korean Peninsula divided as ever, atomic mushroom clouds looming over our heads no matter where we are …
While incorporating these large-scale themes into his novel, Roman is well aware of the importance of smaller-scale events, which are deeply rooted in our daily lives. His keen insight into a romantic relationship is one such example. His description of love materializes into a kind of gripping charm when casting light upon its emotional, financial and cultural facets.
For instance, through Watson's relationship with a Japanese woman, Kimiko, Roman examines nuanced cultural differences "I absolutely intended to show an overlap of different cultures." According to him, it also offers "the opportunity to inject a little comic relief in an otherwise ultra-serious narrative."
Roman further explained how the integration of different cultures pertains to his personal experience in Korea and the realization that we all, as humans, are not much different: "Living in Korea as a foreigner is eye-opening in that at the end of the day, one realizes that we are really more alike than different. Hell, all too often it's politicians that exaggerate any racial and cultural differences for their political gain and expediency."
Besides Watson's relationship with women, his bonds with male companions, especially Liberty Militia members and Mark Mercotti render different types of intense emotions. Indeed, they contribute to establishing a multi-layered structure of relationships as well as the mysterious and thrilling narrative, not to mention the novel's unexpected ending.
For those who are willing to embrace the apocalyptic world of Roman, the author has championed open-mindedness, which allows us to broaden our understanding of current issues and leads us to ponder upon the fine line between life and death.
"Try to come with an open mind regarding contentious issues explored in the book like those mentioned earlier: gun control, feminism, racism, etc. Above all, reflect deeply on the very real possibility that we all could be living in the final days."
While this "apocalyptic thriller" in which the sci-fi undertone blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality engages readers with its "deliberately designed" sci-fi elements, Roman hinted that the sci-fi element is not the main component of the narrative: "The sci-fi element is oblique and tangential to the story arc." Underneath the veneer of it lies a reality-based narrative that captures the readers' attention with relatable topics.
When asked about the advantages of fiction compared to non-fiction, Roman pinpointed the far-reaching influence of narratives whose fictional voices can hold truthful aspects concerning the world. "Fiction can be more truthful than non-fiction in many respects," Roman continued, "the underlying truth of a message can be more powerful than the literal. Metaphors embedded in fiction can be, and often are, more potent than literal truth. Always have been."
In a half-sarcastic tone, Roman commented that writing fiction is much more practical than academic writing, "because [academic writing] is too often laden with 'gaseous rhetoric' to borrow a phrase from the [his] book." It is time for us to find out what differentiates fiction from this "gaseous rhetoric" and whether his metaphorical language contains more than what it seems.
No Kyung-min (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an intern reporter of The Korea Times.
Interviews & Podcasts
Listen to Ron discuss his book Of Ashes and Dust with award-winning author and podcaster Dr. Yvonne Battle-Felton (Cambridge University) on her podcast here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/bookable-space-with-ron-roman/id1642345254?i=1000639071404
ESG Connect Forum
Ron addresses the ESG Connect Forum on 23 November 2022 at the National Press Center in Seoul, Korea. As one of the featured speakers on the future of pollution-free technologies, he
introduces his book by way of the
research that went into it regarding international conflicts
over natural energy sources.