The war has ended and Norman Bowker has returned home. It's the Fourth of July and he's driving his father's Chevy around the lake's seven-mile loop. The town seems the same. In high school at night Bowker had driven around the same lake with his girlfriend Sally Kramer, or he drove with friends and they would spend the ride talking about whether or not God existed. Then the war happened. But the lake had always been there. Bowker got a bad ear infection after high school from the lake water that nearly kept him from going to Vietnam. His friend Max Arnold had drowned in the lake and so he didn't go to the war at all.
Norman has come back a completely different person, but nothing about where he came from has changed in a way to help him ease back into society. There are some things that are good about consistency though. The lake had always been there, but it was a kind of menacing consistency because it had taken Max Arnold, a friend who would surely listen to Norman after the war when he desperately needs someone to talk to.
Most of Norman Bowker's friends have moved away. Sally Kramer was now Sally Gustafson. The third day he was home, he saw Sally mowing her lawn. She was still pretty, and he considered pulling over the car to talk to her. Instead, he accelerated. She looked like she was happy with her house and her husband, and there wasn't anything Norman Bowker could really say to her.
Now that Norman is back from the war he feels aimless and without anyone to talk to. His friends are gone; the girls are all married or gone. His sweetheart Sally is married. Sally wouldn't want to hear about the war and that's all he really knew now.
Norman Bowker drives past Slater Park and past Sunset Park. If Sally wasn't married and if his father wasn't an ardent baseball fan, it would be a good day to talk. Bowker imagines the conversation with his father, confessing he didn't get the Silver Star for valor, but he almost did. He imagines his father nodding, knowing many brave men don't win medals for what they did while others who did nothing do. Norman then imagines listing the seven medals he won, but telling his father it didn't reward remarkable courage, just routine, common stuff. But wasn't that worth something? The ribbons looked good on his uniform, now stowed away in the closet. Norman imagines telling his father about how he nearly won the Silver Star. He would start by describing the Song Tra Bong river. Bowker would say he wasn't brave enough, but his father would point out he got seven medals; he wasn't a coward.
Norman keeps driving and he's thinking about all of the people he wishes he could talk to like his father or Sally, but they're caught up in their own lives and Norman doesn't feel like his issues are important enough to intrude, or that they wouldn't understand. He imagines an entire conversation with his father, whose approval he sought out so desperately in the war, and in their conversation his father would celebrate how courageous Norman was, even though Norman feels like a failure for not winning the Silver Star for valor. Bowker has the entire conversation dreamed up because he's thought through so many times what he would say, and what he hopes his father would say.
Norman Bowker enjoys the feel inside the car, as if it were a tour bus, except he was touring a dead town. When he looks out the window, he thinks it looks like the town had been hit with nerve gas because everything seemed lifeless. "The town could not talk, and would not listen." He might have asked if they would like to hear about Vietnam, but the town wouldn't say anything. "It had no memory, therefore no guilt." Taxes were paid, votes were counted, the government worked on briskly and politely. "It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know." Bowker fantasizes about serving them shit.
The town doesn't listen, just like no one else would listen to him, echoing one of the morals from Mitchell Sanders story in "How to Tell A True War Story". The town refuses to hear the horror stories.. It sent Norman to war, its social obligations forced him to go to war, to feel guilty for only winning seven medals, but it doesn't want to know about the war. It fills Bowker, a hero, with fury.
Bowker spots four workmen setting up the fireworks. Bowker whispers whether they want to hear about the Silver Star he nearly won. If they had listened he would have said it never quit raining and you couldn't escape the muck. He would have told the men about the night in the shit field, where they were warned by village women to stay away. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had to fire his pistol in the air to make the mama-sans go away. The rain got worse, and the field got worse too. He would have told the workmen that it was like a deep soup, and sleeping was impossible. But he would have said the worst part was the smell from the river and the shit—the village toilet.
Bowker is so lonely, so isolated, he's whispering to people he sees on the street if they want to hear about the Silver Star he almost won. He imagines what he would tell them. There's something about how he re-iterates the loss of the Silver Star though that alludes to a guilt that Norman is carrying.
Bowker would have told the story of that night with the "exact truth." They took mortar fire. There was so much rain, and the mortar seemed to be coming out of the clouds. Men began shooting up flares. Rounds hit close by, and Bowker heard screaming and recognized it as Kiowa's voice. Bowker started crawling towards the screaming and in the light of flares he saw Kiowa's eyes wide-open and him sinking into the muck. When Norman reached Kiowa, he was nearly completely under the muck. He tried to pull Kiowa out by his boot, but Kiowa was gone. Bowker felt himself going because the smell of the shit was overpowering and he let go of Kiowa's boot and worked to pull himself out of the muck. He was alone, without a weapon. But it didn't matter because the only thing Bowker wanted was a bath. As he drives around the lake Bowker keeps remembering how Kiowa, his friend, sank under the shit. If it hadn't been for the smell he could have gotten the Silver Star.
It wasn't a lack of physical strength that made him let go of Kiowa; it was the smell of the shit. Norman Bowker couldn't stand it anymore, and he blames himself for Kiowa's death because he feels like he's a coward for letting go when he just couldn't hold onto the boot for another second. If he had just pushed through that feeling, he could have pulled Kiowa out of the muck, and he's convinced himself that if he had done that then Kiowa would be alive and he would have won the Silver Star for valor—which is more important to Norman because it would mean Kiowa had lived, rather than he had received another medal. For others the medal would be a sign of valor. For him it would be a sign of Kiowa still being alive and him, Norman, not being crushed by guilt.
Bowker parks his father's Chevy at the A&W. A slim waitress passed by, but she didn't seem to notice when he honked his horn. Bowker felt invisible. He honked his horn again. The waitress turned slowly with confusion, and came to Bowker's car. He ordered a burger and the girl shook her head and pointed to the intercom on the steel post next to his car, and said that's how you place an order—all she did was carry the trays. She looked at him for a second like she had a question, but then she pushed the intercom for him.
Bowker is out of touch with what's changed since the war. He has to have been to the A&W before, but the intercoms are new. He honks at the waitress to get her attention for an order, but also as another person he could potentially talk to about everything that happened in the war. He remembers so much but no one will listen.
He ordered a burger with fries over the intercom. The voice responded with "Affirmative, copy clear. No rootie-tootie," which Bowker found out meant root beer and ordered a small one. "Roger-dodger. Mama, one fries, one small beer. Fire for effect. Stand by." The intercom went silent and Bowker said, "Out." The girl brought his tray and Bowker ate fast. He finished his root beer and pushed the intercom. The voice asked him what else he needed. Bowker smiled and said, "How'd you like to hear about—" but he stopped and the voice asked to hear about what, but Bowker was quiet. The voice over the intercom said it wasn't going anywhere; it was stuck listening to this post all night, so Bowker should tell him. When Bowker didn't respond the voice over the intercom sounded slightly disappointed.
This military language over the intercom is almost comical. A kind of fun-house reflection of the war that has filled Norman with unbearable guilt, now turned into a kind of silly-talk to help sell burgers. But the voice at the other end of the intercom is willing to listen. Someone is finally willing to listen. And Bowker can't say it. He wishes someone would listen, but it's unspeakable.
On the tenth go around the lake, Bowker thinks, "There was nothing to say. He could not talk about it and never would." If it were possible, though it wasn't, he would have explained how Kiowa slipped under the mud, and became the waste of war. Bowker had pulled on Kiowa's boot but the smell overtook him and because of that he fled and lost the Silver Star. Bowker would tell his father the truth, which was that he let Kiowa go. He imagined his father would say maybe Kiowa was gone already, but Bowker would say he wasn't. His father would say "But maybe." But Bowker would be insistent; he would say he felt it. His father would be in the passenger seat, and he would say that Bowker still won the seven medals.
Bowker is haunted by the image of Kiowa sinking under and he can't get past how guilty he feels about letting go. He thinks he was brave—he didn't expect to be so brave—but it wasn't enough, and that is the distinction that is driving him mad. His imaginary father, which is also his own rational side, tries to talk him out of this despair. But in the end it can only invoke the medals Bowker won, which Bowker pursued because of the social obligations he felt as a soldier and to make his father proud, but which have left him isolated in the post-war world and did nothing to save Kiowa.
On Bowker's twelfth circulation, the fireworks start to go off. He parks, gets out of his car, and wades into the lake with his clothes on. The water is warm and he fully immerses himself. He lest his lips open a little to get a taste. He stands up with his arms folded and watches the fireworks. He decides that it's a pretty good show for a small town.
Bowker's self-immersion in the lake mirrors the night in the shit field and Kiowa's death by sinking, except now Bowker is home and it's water in his mouth. It's Independence Day and there's a huge show celebrating America and its victory in war, shiny lights in the sky like shiny medals on a uniform, but Bowker is still alone, with no one listening to his unspeakable thoughts.