Mr. Lake's novel is much more than a novel. It features numerous practical tips and carefully considered advice that can immediately help families or anyone who knows a veteran.
"Off Switch" involves highly developed, multidimensional characters who are believable and easy to picture.
"Off Switch" centers on Veteran's Affairs (VA) counselor Jennifer Hutton, late 30s, doing her best to help 28-year-old Corey Prine, recently returned to the United States after being deployed to Iraq. We also have Hutton's boyfriend, Rob, a character who was also in the pre-9-11 Army, though not in combat, who we can contrast with Prine.
The most controversial and fascinating character is Jerry Barnes, "Ph.D., Ed.D. and former M.D.," author of "PTSD Nation - The New `ism for a New Generation." We see excerpts from Barnes' "PTSD Nation" interspersed between the action; a book within the novel: "Off Switch." Through the excerpts and conversations with Hutton, Barnes provides key insights into psychology, current events and "good-intentioned" laws/government policy that can quickly backfire.
In his 80s, equipped with the wisdom of age and experience in the medical profession, but not without his faults, Barnes challenges us to think critically; for example, to think beyond the often meaningless, superficial "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers we often see thrown on the bumpers of oil-guzzling pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles.
Though his methods are unconventional, Barnes challenges Hutton (and "Off Switch" readers) to fully confront questions of what it truly takes to support our men and women who put their lives on the line in combat situations, while also taking into account the lives of their families and society as a whole. Here we find a strong backbone in this novel and one of life's greatest truths: We don't always have easy answers or quick fixes. Plus there's something even tough to think about: Perhaps there are some things that go too far over the line and are beyond repair.
"Off Switch" creatively expands our awareness/ways of thinking about PTSD and other issues that affect all of us. As such, Mr. Lake's work in "Off Switch" is crucial while our nation continues to deal with the massive expense (the true costs that most working people are paying for) and perpetual fallout of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In "Off Switch," Mr. Lake provides a critical examination of the issues and dangers associated with increased (some might say out of control) use of pharmaceuticals (particularly "sleeping pills") among veterans and our military, both overseas and in the United States, as well as the problems of the pharmaceutical industry and other lobbies unduly influencing government checkbooks.
Our "Pill Nation," a subject of concern among thinking people, has become an enormous "Elephant in the Room," and Mr. Lake rightly calls it out for what it is.
Through "Off Switch," Mr. Lake encourages us to look much harder from a military, veteran and civilian perspective at this overarching economic/social issue of pervasive and very powerful legal drugs, "pharmaceuticals," that the nation's "higher ups" go out of their way to distract us from, hide or outright lie about (such as manipulating the reported numbers of suicides among our military: Does the public have a correct and accurate number of suicides or a purposefully inaccurate one?)
We have in Mr. Lake a rare find: A fiction author who offers us not just another war-effects story, but a straightforward, no-holds-barred, inside-view account. This is fiction, but fiction built on a solid foundation reflecting realities faced by many soldiers.
As a veteran of the Iraq war myself, I found many things I could relate to in "Off Switch." It truly captures what it's like to come back to the States and try to make sense of things after being deployed back-to-back to the Middle East. Reading this book made me feel once again that combat-zone/veteran kinship, like I'm not alone in so many of these thoughts I've had. As Mr. Lake so eloquently describes, the combat-zone is not restricted to the desert or the jungle. The combat-zone is also within our own minds.
Those seeking not only a compelling story, but also a deeper understanding of veteran's issues, would do well to read "Off Switch" FIRST before any other novels that may be written perhaps by single-career fiction writers, Hollywood writers or academics who may have done research (not to take anything away from these folks, many of whom are excellent writers), but who have not in fact lived a soldier's life.
In contrast, Mr. Lake is a veteran of the combat zone in Iraq, a place where your life is in danger every moment of every day, where you and your battle buddies are fighting to survive in extreme conditions, such as 130-degrees in full body armor, where the water you drink is sweated out as soon as it goes down your throat. It's a place where an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) can blow up your convoy vehicle at any moment, where mortars land on your outpost at 3 a.m. and snipers lay in wait to pick you off.
These are all examples of things you can never just "get out of your head" after you return "home." Being in combat environments changes you fundamentally and quickly--you are not the same person after deployment that you were before you deployed. These kinds of experiences affect you constantly even if you're not consciously thinking about them, even if you appear to others to be "OK" on the outside.
The hard truth is you can never really return "home" (and conversely you can feel extremely isolated and disconnected from humanity because the people who remained "home" don't feel what you feel or see what you see.) That's one of the hardest realities many are dealing with. For those who've lost their spouses and kids due to deployment, or who don't have a strong support system, this is a gigantic struggle indeed.
Any veteran reading this book can tell instantly that the author has lived the hard life of a soldier who has survived both the combat zone and the return. Mr. Lake's experience shines in every word, and therefore, as a veteran, I consider Mr. Lake's "Off Switch" to be a cut above other fictional accounts out there that propose to talk about veterans or the wars in the Middle East.
I can imagine the many challenges in writing this novel, but we should thank Mr. Lake for his willingness to re-live his own difficult experiences (an obvious requirement of writing a novel such as "Off Switch"). Let's thank this author for sharing his hard-gained knowledge in hopes that others can find help.
Do yourself a favor. Read "Off Switch." Read it now.
- Review by Theodore Webb, author of "Lifeline," "Crucible," "Colossus" and "Inferno," "The STARLING Series"