Reviewed by Christopher Bundrick
God’s Angry Man: The Incredible Journey of Private Joe Haan paints a very interesting picture of a mid-twentieth century American experience. A sort of American everyman, Joe Haan might represent our sense of what’s best about this country. Like Huckleberry Finn (born just a little further south on the Mississippi), Haan was resourceful and proud, capable, resilient, footloose, and dutiful. In many ways, Joe Haan is the exact picture of a great American. At the same time, Haan’s life is more complicated and asks us to face some of the problems that also define the American experience.
Born in 1918, Joe Haan was one of five children in a poverty-stricken St. Paul family. When his mother died in 1925 his alcoholic father couldn’t hold the family together and Joe, along with his brothers and sisters were parceled out between family members and the state orphanage. Joe lived as a ward of the state until he was indentured to a local farmer in 1928. He was ten years old. The farmer sought to toughen the young Haan with work, whippings, and hunger. Haan’s years on the farm were difficult: “like a tale from a bleak Dickens novel,” Quist tells us (59).
In 1942, after running away from the farm, riding the rails for several years, and working at a CCC camp for one, Joe Haan joined the army. He served in several units, most notably in Patton’s Third Army. He served for sixteen months in active combat and received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. After his discharge, restless and suffering from what we would almost certainly identify as PTSD today, Haan cast around until he finally landed in Houston, where he was an ironworker for most of the rest of his life.
B. Wayne Quist tells his Uncle Joe’s story with obvious pride, but he doesn’t gloss over the rockier moments of Haan’s life either. Explaining Haan’s success as an ironworker, Quist writes, “Joe was successful and thrived because he showed up on time at the right place, had the fortitude to do what was required regardless of weather, heights, or danger” (209). As much as he clearly respects the man, however, Quist doesn’t avoid less flattering details about Haan’s life either. Haunted by the harsh rigors of his childhood and the horrors of war, Joe Haan, Quist explains, often drank too much, and his temper could be quick. However, in what I think is the most interesting aspect of Joe Haan’s life, Quist also suggests that one of the more successful ways Haan wrestled with his demons was through his poetry.
Although never formally educated, Haan had a single-minded fixation on self-improvement. He was an insatiable reader and although his fascination with twentieth-century science informed much of the subject matter of his poetry, probably the most interesting of his poems is “Memories of Death,” about the three days Joe Haan spent sharing a foxhole with the body of a German corporal named Freidrich Hofmann. It begins:
A dead man speaks,
For the Violence that flares about me
Is shocking and sometimes stifling
I am carried in a high wind,
Like the down of a flower,
Into a fray of which I have no interest,
For all of my energies, physical and mental,
Are concerned with other pursuits:
Distant galaxies, infinity and time,
Space and matter, the velocity of light,
The significance of one-celled creature,
Does an amoeba think? (163)
Although, rough in patches, Haan’s poetry shows a lively sense of meter and experiments with forms in very interesting ways. More than that, his poetry reveals a deep—almost desperate— desire to articulate something about the world in which he lives.
It’s in this need to speak, in fact, that Joe Haan’s story earns its place in Southern Literary Review. Although born in Minnesota, Joe Haan’s soul was southern long before he made his home in Houston. Everything about his life—being born into a poor and alcoholic household, living a hardscrabble life, first on the farm, then while riding the rails and serving in the army until finally moving to the city—seems tailored to evoke the clichés we all know about southern culture in the twentieth century. Where Joe proves his place in what some critics are calling the Global South, is in the way he refused to be that cliché. The collection of poems and songs appended to the book show a pragmatic man, proud of his abilities and at home in the world, yet grappling with profound existential questions about his world.