Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” had me with its opening lines:
A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus. We filed behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors” –the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda. I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.
The second contemporary story I know of to take the plight of wounded, disabled, and disfigured veterans as its subject—Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” is the first—“Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” recounts its narrator Rooster and his best friend Sleed’s participation in an Army-sponsored fishing trip for long-term Walter Reed patients. The tale obviously tips its hat to “Big Two-Hearted River” and other stories published in 1925 in Ernest Hemingway’s great return-from-war collection In Our Time. In “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” Rooster’s face has been horribly scarred and a hand mangled by a bomb in Iraq. Now, seething with anger and regret, he contemplates a life “transformed in a flash I could not remember.” He lashes out against his parents and is prone to fits of rage-induced impulsive behavior, such as biting the head off a rainbow trout he cannot properly fillet.
And Rooster’s the healthy one compared to his friend Sleed, who lost a leg and his private parts in the same blast that injured Rooster. A charismatic and energetic soldier when whole, Sleed is now “Jake Barnes and Ahab rolled into one,” his self-hatred and grouse against the world amplified by the fact that his wife has left him and is now, according to a detective Sleed has hired, having public sex with her new boyfriend: “‘Restrooms, parked cars–my man said he got footage of them in the car outside my baby’s daycare.’”
Spoiling for vengeance, Sleed stalks two teenage girls playing hooky from…. Well, I don’t want to give away the plot details more than I have already. It’s a brutal, ugly tale, but great for all that. Fully imagined and instantly memorable, Rooster and Sleed owe more to Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque purveyors of evil in stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” than Hemingway’s stoic Jake Barnes, the emasculated hero of The Sun Also Rises. But lord let’s hope Van Reet really is trying to work the same black comic vein for which O’Connor is famous. If his rendering of the despair and self-loathing of badly-wounded soldiers is meant to be literally true and representative, then we’ve all got a lot to answer for.
According to the Contributors notes in Fire and Forget, Van Reet is a University of Virginia (Wahoo-wah!) drop-out who earned a Bronze Star with “V” Device for action in Baghdad. More power to him in all things.