Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You reads much like Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds told from a woman veteran’s perspective. Like The Yellow Birds’ John Bartle, Be Safe I Love You protagonist Lauren Clay is a moody, out-of-sorts individual before enlisting in the Army, and like Bartle, traumatizing service in Iraq plunges her into madness upon return. To tell stories of lives ruined by war, Hoffman and Powers bend the language of narrative to stylistic extremes. Their prose is lyrical and suggestive, unafraid to leave the precincts of fact, logic, and linear chronology for both subtler and more sensational orders of meaning-making. Thematically, The Yellow Birds and Be Safe I Love You both assert that the aspect of war with the most potential to haunt veterans on return is failing to protect others for whom they felt responsible. John Bartle and Lauren Clay live through war, but soldiers very close to them do not.
But more than The Yellow Birds, the novel Be Safe I Love You really resembles is Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s classic tale of youth angst. Holden Caulfield, the hero of Catcher in the Rye, is beset by a self-imposed obligation to save his sister Phoebe from the terrors and hypocrisies of adult life. In Be Safe I Love You, Lauren’s own overdeveloped sense of obligation extends not just to Army compadres, but to her younger brother Danny, who still resides at home with their dysfunctional father. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden dreams of running away to the west with Phoebe; in Be Safe I Love You, Lauren schemes to travel to the frozen Canadian north with Danny. Nerves jangled by the intensity of war, Lauren now thinks the journey will rescue Danny from the comfortably numb bliss of 24/7 online life. The plan is not just quixotic but crazy, and some of the most poignant parts of Be Safe I Love You reflect Danny’s growing realization that his beloved older sister is no longer the trustworthy guardian on whom he once depended. Lauren’s military service brought nothing but pain, guilt, shame, and madness, and her plan to save Danny is a self-destructive fantasy that may kill him, too. It’s Lauren who needs saving, not Danny.
Lauren’s case is extreme, but Hoffman’s onto something, and she proceeds as if determined to find the reasons why the hero of her own novel does not inspire more sympathy. Lauren was always the responsible one, but now, her take-charge tendencies swollen by promotion to sergeant in the Army, she just comes on too strong all the time. “I couldn’t afford to be fucking sensitive,” Lauren harrumphs, “I had to get things done.” Later, Hoffman writes of Lauren’s mindset:
She’d come home to a world of fragile baby animals. Soft inarticulate wide-eyed morons with know-nothing epiphanies and none of them—not one of them—did what she said, which was beginning to grate on her, cut to the heart of how wrong things were. Still she could accept that these people didn’t know how to lead or follow, but they could at least shut up. If anyone owed her anything for serving in Iraq it was to shut the fuck up.
Lauren’s soldierly discipline and odd sense of mission, along with her arrogance and irritability, dismay her friends and family, while making her extremely difficult to help. A second problem is Lauren’s lingering guilt about joining the Army. “Because deep down they knew you were doing something wrong in the first place,” Lauren thinks, “All that training was not for rescuing kittens from trees.” Later, Lauren screams at her father when he tries to compare her service to their friend PJ’s in Vietnam:
“I’m not PJ. Understand? I didn’t get drafted. I wasn’t some sitting-target chump with eight weeks of basic. I enlisted. I was educated. I had people under my command…. I am a beneficiary of this war… We got paid… If you never make another dime I’ve saved still saved enough to put Danny through state school and pay his rent until he graduates.”
The implication here is that post-traumatic stress and other forms of contemporary veteran dysfunction are exacerbated by their victims’ knowledge that at some level they volunteered for and were compensated for what they now suffer. Be Safe I Love You’s portrait of Lauren’s deterioration is as bleak and cold as the New York state hinterlands and the far reaches of northeast Canada in which the novel is set. It suggests not that America needs to understand what ails its troubled veterans, but that such veterans themselves should slow down, listen to what people are trying to tell them, and figure out how and why they are scaring the friends and family to whom they have returned.
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You. Simon and Schuster, 2014.