The Mercy Killers

Lisa Reardon


On September 11, 2001, shortly after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the plane carrying novelist Lisa Reardon and her husband, Mick Weber, touched down in Hong Kong. When she reached Vietnam a few days later she felt like she was entering a time warp. “All the army jeeps and Quonset huts and riverboats from the war were still there,” she says. “The Vietnamese people kept apologizing to me about the attacks. I wanted to say, ‘No, I’m sorry for what we did to your country.'”

Reardon was there to do research for a thriller set during the Vietnam war, and she’d already spent three months reading up on the history and talking to veterans, many still living with the pain of their experience. But she felt that to understand where they’d fought she had to go there. She spent five days taking in impressions of the landscape and the people.

When Reardon got back to the U.S. she felt the country had changed. “The atmosphere upon our return was frightening,” she says. “Oppressive national guardsmen in the airports, American flags everywhere, and all this talk of war. I couldn’t believe that we could be heading into another Vietnam situation. And sure enough, we were. The rest of The Mercy Killers was written with the underlying feeling that we were making the same mistakes again.”

Reardon’s previous novels had dealt with alcoholism, incest, and murder–her Web site calls her the “queen of redneck noir.” “The Mercy Killers is the first book that is socially and politically dark,” she says. “I went to my first political protest after my visit to Vietnam. Before that I had been pretty passive politically.”

The book, released in September, tells the story of the prostitutes, drug dealers, petty criminals, and factory workers who hang out at McGurk’s Tap Room, a bar in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the late 60s. One of the regulars, the severely depressed Old Jerry, pleads for someone to kill him, and his brain-damaged grandson finally does. His other grandson, Charlie, takes the rap and is offered the choice of prison or Vietnam. He opts for the war, thinking at least he’ll get paid for being a soldier.

Reardon had originally planned to have Charlie go to jail. Then she saw Heddy Honigmann’s documentary Crazy, about Dutch soldiers fulfilling their military-service requirement. “As I walked out of the film I heard Charlie’s voice telling me, ‘I don’t go to prison; I go to Vietnam,'” she says. “I thought, damn, I don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. But I had to listen to him.”

Reardon drew on her own life in writing the book. She was born in 1962 in Ann Arbor. When she was a girl her father often took her to the Tap Room in Ypsilanti, the inspiration for McGurk’s. “It was a real dive-ball bar, and it was a lot of fun for a seven-year-old,” she says. “I have very happy memories from there. People gave me quarters to play pinball. They’d buy me Cokes. I’d watch my dad drink and shoot pool. One of the waitresses would feed me.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1989, Reardon went on to Yale to get an MFA in playwriting. She didn’t like New Haven. “It was so dangerous,” she says. “Here was this white Anglo-Saxon Protestant enclave surrounded by high walls and locked gates. We needed escort services to get around at night. The university doesn’t pay a dime in city taxes. The drama school was the bastard child–our building was outside the main campus, across the street from the hookers and drug dealers.”

She got her degree and moved to New York, where she had plays performed in off-off-Broadway venues. The collaborative process didn’t sit well with her; she felt it forced her to perform “an abortion on my work.” She and her husband decided to leave New York. “I had it in my head that I needed wide-open spaces,” she says. So they spent a year in Minneapolis. “Too wide-open spacey. I needed public transportation.” In January 2002 they moved to Chicago and settled in Logan Square. “For a kid from Michigan, Chicago was a mythical city. Living here is a childhood dream come true. In New York everything is compressed. I relax in my body in this flat landscape. I think you have to leave the midwest to appreciate it.”

Having spent months researching The Mercy Killers, Reardon knew she had to get the Vietnam details right. “I became extremely nervous about technical errors,” she says. “I felt responsible to every man and woman who’d been there. The tricky part was to finally let the research go and trust my imagination. My research was the act of taking the characters by the arm and showing them Vietnam. But after that they had to tell me their experiences.”

Reardon used an omniscient third-person point of view in the first part of the novel, then gave the characters the chance to describe their experiences in Vietnam through letters. The letters are funny and tragic, full of misspellings and sarcasm. Sometimes Charlie puts a rosy spin on the war to protect his brain-damaged brother. After Charlie returns to the States he has flashbacks, and the war is often the focus of conversations with his best friend, Gino, who was drafted and returned a heroin addict.

The character of Gino is based in part on Reardon’s father’s friend Dave, who babysat her, then went to Vietnam. Dave was tall and handsome, and Reardon dreamed of marrying him someday. “One day this guy came in the house,” she says. “He had long gray hair, a huge beard, and terrifying eyes. When he knelt down to say hello to me I started crying. ‘I don’t like you!’ I didn’t know who he was. Then my mom said, ‘Lisa, it’s Dave.’ But it wasn’t Dave to me. I always felt bad about doing that to him.”

Reardon says that in some ways The Mercy Killers seems to have a happy ending. But she points out that Charlie isn’t honest with his daughter about why he went to Vietnam, telling her he enlisted, and that he and the other adults in the book also cover up what happened to Gino and two other characters. “We were all just young and stupid and having a good time,” says Charlie. Reardon says, “No one tells the truth–they’re creating a fairy tale. And then the next generation’s bound to repeat their mistakes.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.