I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, Jesse Goolsby’s soon-to-be-released novel about three US Army male soldiers bound by shared horrific experience in Afghanistan, offers plenty of reasons to be excited about the expanding possibilities of contemporary war fiction. Both in subject matter and manner of narration, it does things no Iraq or Afghanistan war novel has yet done, which makes it fresh and delightful–though also harrowing–while its determination to tell a different story in a different way serves as a subtle critique of war fiction heretofore published. I’d Walk With My Friends’ greatest achievement is the rich imagining of its protagonists’ lives before they joined the military and long—generations long—after they returned from Afghanistan. Chapters set in Afghanistan ring true in terms of details and emotional exactitude, but Goolsby’s bigger point is that war experience exists in a continuum of life events that precede any soldier’s deployment and play-out directly and indirectly in the days, weeks, years, and decades following, with war’s insidious ruination affecting not just the returning veteran but his or her family and friends, too, incrementally mostly but often cataclysmically. It is this capacious ability to envision the “human cost of war” that distinguishes I’d Walk With My Friends from other war novels, whose tighter focus in comparison seems more a failure of imagination than a literary virtue.
Goolsby’s an active-duty Air Force officer, and I often wondered what the many Air Force personnel I met in Afghanistan thought about the Army folks who by-and-large did most of the fighting. I’d Walk With My Friends suggests that Goolsby, though not an Afghanistan veteran, has indeed been given to speculation about the men and women who volunteered to serve on the ground in the nation’s recent wars. A tour working in a DoD office charged with managing the military’s human resource programs seems to have made him especially sympathetic towards soldiers whose time overseas, let us say, did not go so well and left him curious about the long-term consequences. The novel’s protagonists are enlisted US Army soldiers who bring their distinctive regional backgrounds, personalities, and family histories to the shared experience of the warzone. Wintric Ellis is a chill rural California kid, a small-town hot shot who dreams of escape and grandeur. Armando Torres hails from an assimilated Colorado Hispanic family presided over by a charismatic con-man of a father whom Armando worships. Big Dax is a 6’6” New Jersey-ite, physically imposing and impressive at first glance, but actually timidly deferential to anyone more self-assured than he is and given to impulsive fits of bravado to try to prove himself. In Afghanistan, the three squad-mates endure a vexing humanitarian mission, survive a suicide bomber attack in Kabul, and together are complicit in the death of an Afghan girl who approaches them on checkpoint duty in the middle of nowhere. One of them is also victimized–let’s not be coy, the incident is a man-on-man rape–on-base in a way that is far more consequential than anything that happens outside the wire—a scenario that suggests the horrible possibility that it is American military culture itself, rather than war, that wreaks the most damage on its members.
But a mark of Goolsby’s skill is that he refuses to blame military service or war single-mindedly on the troubles that befall Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax. They are catalysts, certainly, but it’s more than that. The men’s personalities, as made clear in the scenes depicting life before service, shape—indeed, almost bring them inevitably to—the events they encounter in Afghanistan, as if the nostrum “fate is character” were all too true, and their personalities are also complicit in their unraveling afterwards. Goolsby excels at portraying the complex relationship between character and circumstance. Debilitated by inadequate personal resources, Wintric’s, Torres’, and Big Dax’s inability to deal with their Afghanistan experience is exacerbated by their crumb-bum high school educations and the impoverishment of the junk-food-and-pop-culture American milieu, both feeble preparations for life’s storms. And yet we feel for I’d Walk With My Friends’ tragic heroes, as quotidian as their downward spirals are, much as we do for the befuddled, overmatched heroes of Thomas Hardy novels such as Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge. We can’t hate them, because we recognize ourselves in them, and because Goolsby makes us love them by making their dissolution so vivid.
The vitality stems from Goolsby’s ingenious ability to devise scenes that portray characters in the full clutches of their unique defects and also from the manner of the novel’s narration. I’d Walk With My Friends is related entirely in present tense, which renders a real-time, documentary feel to the episodic events the characters endure. The protagonists’ sagas are not related in first-person, but the third-person descriptions are heavily focalized through the eyes of the main characters, so that descriptions of physical environment are limited to what Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax would actually be observing. There is almost no effort to render interior thinking, so the characters’ thoughts must be dramatized through spoken speech, though Goolsby’s ability to portray realistic and entertaining conversation is, again, excellent. What Goolsby doesn’t offer at all, though, is authorial commentary on the events he portrays, so readers are left to their own wits to make sense of the characters and events described. Nor does Goolsby employ much figurative language; if there is a metaphor or simile in the book that is not offered by one of the characters, I missed it.
So what to make of the lean-and-mean stylistic texture of the book? The parts that Goolsby leaves out by design are the parts his characters repress to their detriment. United by their horrible war experience, Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax lack the power of comprehension and articulation to resolve its complications. Instead, they lie, misrepresent, and refuse to confront what needs confronting most. Life metastasized by war for them is best lived by reducing things to simplicities, trivialities, escapes, half-measures, and evasions, which is basically what they did before before war, too. But now, following war, the consequences–self-destruction unto death and familial wreckage into perpetuity–are far more dire. The beauty of I’d Walk With My Friends lies in the fine-grained particularity with which Goolsby imagines how it is so.
Jesse Goolsby, I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.