I was thirty pages into Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp before I learned, thanks to a quick check of Amazon reviews, that I was not reading a novel. I felt stupid, which is kind of normal, but also disappointed, because I thought the story’s conceit was outstanding: an investigative journalist covering the story of an Afghanistan veteran possessed by demons starts seeing demons herself. I was also enjoying Percy’s style, which reminded me of the lurid tones of Cormac McCarthy. Bring on the strange, at long last something really weird. The opening paragraph set the trap:
Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves. A machine gunner three years out of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, 3rd Battalion, he’d tried to kill himself, four or five times, but he was interrupted each time—once by his dead buddy Kip Jacoby; once by his girlfriend Krissy, whom he met at a strip club; once on a lake by his house in his canoe when the rain stopped and he saw the moon; and once when the demon called the Black Thing came into his bedroom in Savannah and said, ‘I will kill you if you proceed,’ and Caleb said, ‘No you won’t, asshole, because I’m going to do it myself.
So Caleb Daniels, it turns out, is a real person, and on Demon Camp‘s terms, so too is the Black Thing. Percy writes, “Caleb said these things could transfer, and because these things are not limited to war, I started to wonder if it was following me.” Demon Camp is not then a story of descent into madness, but of seeming madness taken very literally.
If Demon Camp isn’t a novel, what is it? Investigative journalism, perhaps, but the haunted prose and Percy’s insertion of herself into the story are just the beginning of its breaches of the tenets of objective reportage. Creative nonfiction, a genre beloved by MFA programs, though not one that has garnered much traction among the reading public, is another possibility. Creative nonfiction authors such as Annie Dillard combine reportage and reflection in highly wrought soufflés that say as much about them as the objects of their investigation. But the knock on creative nonfiction is that it is more of a literary experience than anything having to do with real life. Percy, as I make sense of Demon Camp, has something urgent to say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the people who fought them, and the nation that sent them off and to which they return.
The highlight of Caleb Daniel’s service was deployment to Afghanistan with the famed 160th Special Operations Regiment “Night Stalkers” aviation unit. Left behind at the FOB on the helicopter mission to save the Navy SEALS on the Operation Red Wings mission that served as the basis for the book and movie Lone Survivor, Caleb avoids the death that came to sixteen others when the Taliban shot down their CH-47 Chinook. Too wracked by guilt and PTSD to continue serving, Caleb commences a post-Army life that, as documented by Percy, is a tornado of destructive behavior: employment false-starts, financial difficulties, broken relationships, drinking, run-ins with authority, violence, the whole nine yards. And all this before we consider his membership in a fringe religious sect that believes wholesale in good and bad demons and exorcisms, played out in Georgia backwoods churches “down four dirt roads,” as Percy writes. The immediate object of Caleb’s faith is exorcising the demons that, for him, represent PTSD. Barely interested in morality and good behavior, Caleb is drawn to evangelical religion because it offers a convincing explanation for the presence of evil in the world.
Caleb’s chicken-fried version of the battle between heaven and hell makes William Blake’s cosmology look simple and logical, for those familiar with the visionary English poet. But Percy’s approach eschews the irony Flannery O’Connor might bring to the same subject for the straight-faced respect Walker Evans and James Agee displayed when they portrayed with stark dignity Alabama sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I’m straining here to find analogies for Demon Camp’s strange brew, so let me close with a few simpler statements that will help you decide whether to read it for yourself. It’s not Caleb’s standard issue dysfunctional behaviors Percy’s most interested in describing, it’s his strange belief system and means of processing experience. Emerging into adulthood, shaken by the war but seemingly untouched by the normative institutional values he was supposed to have obtained from family, school, and church, to say nothing of the Army’s “official” values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage, Caleb possesses a hot mess of an interior life that I think Percy actually admires. Patriotism, discipline, and other soldierly virtues be damned, Caleb’s stew of ideas, motivations, and fears stand as huge reproaches to authority and convention, and authority and convention should take heed. Caleb is more disorderly–or disordered–than they imagine and not cowed in the least by their supposed power, and he’s probably not the only one who thinks and feels as he does. Entranced by her mixed-up but charismatic subject, Percy offers him to us an antidote to the idealized, simply motivated “good soldier,” and she challenges us to take him as seriously as she does.
But Percy’s even bigger grouse, I think, is with the conventions of war literature. My theory is that Demon Camp is as generically and stylistically unstable as it is because Percy believes much writing about the war is far too settled. Why write another same-old, same-old story? Too comfortable with itself, falling predictably into standardized themes and scenes, and making few demands on the reader, the whole war lit biz, I’ll bet Percy would say, instantiates what it purports to critique. Willing to break rules and take risks, to include ridicule, misunderstanding, and lack of sales (though I think Demon Camp would make a great movie), Percy plays for the bigger stakes of being a game-changer.
Sergeant Caleb Daniels, if you read this, thank you for your service, trite at that phrase is. To make it through Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school and to soldier successfully with the Night Stalkers speaks volumes. I hope you are healthy, happy, and productive.
Jennifer Percy, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism. Scribner, 2014.