It's been 10 years since Larry Colton reinvigorated the nonfiction sports genre with Counting Coup, the offbeat chronicle of a Crow Indian girl's against-all-odds quest to lead her high-school basketball team to a state championship.
Counting Coup broke all the rules—and readers' hearts—as Colton, briefly a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, showed how a book about sports, even a low-stakes sport like girls' basketball, could be a lot more than a book about sports.
Now the '80s-era WW contributor and cofounder of Wordstock tries to do much the same thing for the shelves of books that have been written about the "Greatest Generation." No Ordinary Joes (Crown, 402 pages, $26) tells the true story of four American submariners captured by the Japanese in World War II.
Colton ably re-creates all the tension of submarine warfare on the high seas as he recounts the tale of the USS Grenadier, a Tambor-class sub that's torpedo-bombed off the coast of Malaysia, settles to the bottom and struggles to surface again only to be scuttled by her crew just before they're taken prisoner by the Japanese.
The author's real accomplishment, however, lies in the meticulous way he reconstructs the details, not just of combat, but of the four sailors' personal lives before, during and after the two years they spend as POWs. The beatings, torture and starvation the men endure in No Ordinary Joes make The Bridge on the River Kwai seem like a week at Boy Scout camp. What happens after they return home is, in many ways, almost as harrowing.
The only thing Colton gets wrong is the book's title. The Joes in this book are perfectly ordinary in every way. That doesn't make them any less admirable. In fact, it makes them more human.
All four men grow up in the privation of the Great Depression. They share the prejudices of most American men of their time and place, including a casual attitude toward sexual infidelity, a racist view of African-Americans, and a rational conviction that "the Japs" are subhuman. These are men behaving badly, as well as nobly, much like Colton's fraternity pals in his breakout 1993 book Goat Brothers.
Colton makes no excuses for his subjects' personal shortcomings, and he gives readers glimpses of Japanese culture that put some of the war's brutality in context: As recruits, Japanese soldiers were beaten almost as badly as POWs, and by 1944 food shortages meant most Japanese were slowly starving along with their prisoners.
All but a handful of the Grenadier's crew survived captivity, but heroism in "the Good War" offered no guarantees of a life lived happily ever after. The men in No Ordinary Joes return home not to long kisses in Times Square but to ordinary, troubled relationships with women that culminate in marriage, divorce and sometimes remarriage. They struggle to make a living; one becomes a self-made millionaire. They watch their children live or die, succeed or fail.
As Colton notes in his epilogue, World War II veterans are now dying at a rate of about 1,000 a day. Three of the four sailors in No Ordinary Joes died in the decade it took Colton to finish his book. Ordinary or not, more of them deserve such a monument.
Larry Colton appears at the Wordstock VI Literary Feast and Book Release Party, along with former POW Tim McCoy, at the Governor Hotel, 611 SW 11th Ave., 432-9477. 6 pm Friday, Oct. 8. $150. He also appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Oct. 11. Free.