It’s been hard not to notice the recent flury of writing and art by Wisconsin veterans. Matthew J. Hefti’s novel A Hard and Heavy Thing, about two childhood friends from Wisconsin tested by battle in Iraq, arrived in January of this year. Kyle Larkin’s short stories “Minarets,” originally published on the Military Experience and the Arts website, and “The Night Before Christmas,” which I have read in manuscript, are two of the best war stories set in-country and focused on the experience of infantrymen I’ve read lately. Just last week, Larkin published a provocative essay on Military Experience and the Arts titled “Post Traumatic Narrative Disorder,” in which he argues that frustration, confusion, and ambivalence, not trauma, might better serve as the defining characteristic of veteran-redeployment stories. David Chrisinger, a veterans program administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has published an eloquent collection of veteran-student narratives titled See Me For Who I Am: Stories of War and Coming Home and Chrisinger also keeps an affiliated website, also remarkable, called Stronger at the Broken Places: Student Veterans and the Long Walk Home from War. Singer-songwriter Jason Moon has been around longer—I first posted his excellent return-from-war lament “Trying to Find My Way Home” a couple of years ago—but I’ve only recently become acquainted with his organization Warrior Songs, which promotes music by and about veterans, and a recent radio interview sparkled with insights about his own struggle with PTSD and his efforts to help others so afflicted.
Chrisinger is not a veteran, but the works of the other Wisconsin residents I’ve named are born of extensive military experience. Hefti deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan as an Explosives Ordnance Disposal technician, while Larkin and Moon deployed to Iraq as an infantryman and combat engineer, respectively, in the Wisconsin National Guard. Taken together, the Wisconsin warrior artists are mostly interested in the earthy world of fighting men and the crucible of combat, though the narratives collected by Chrisinger represent a broader range of service and viewpoints. Further judging from their work and comments, it appears, sadly, that war and deployment mostly stunned them and then sent them stumbling for years afterwards. A feeling of pride persists, though, an attitude that may be roughly summarized as, “Whatever else you might say, we answered the call, and now it’s our right or obligation to bear witness.” The perceptive Brian Castner, in his forward to See Me For Who I Am, writes that the veteran students anthologized there-in sometimes seem to wear “a sense of superiority on their sleeve,” and then immediately recalibrates the impression to note the authors’ honesty: “’Here are my warts, they say, where are yours?’” All the writing that I’ve seen, both fiction and memoir, also emits a strong sense of Wisconsin place: a tight-knit homogenous culture organized around loyalty to family and community and other sturdy, sensible values, but one in which residents cope with oppressive expectations by drinking heavily and lashing out at ones they love most. “Trying to find my way home,” indeed….
All these sentiments are on display in Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The novel’s two protagonists, Levi and Nick, come-of-age in a small town near LaCrosse, where they are the singer and guitar player, respectively, in a popular punk band. Levi is coarse and Nick is sensitive, but both are well on their way to alienation, misanthropy, and alcoholism even before joining the Army in the wake of 9/11. Service in the active Army and then the Guard brings them a few years later to Iraq, where Nick’s truck is blasted by an IED that kills the other occupants and leaves Nick badly injured and pinned inside the wreckage. Levi rescues his friend and then fights off an insurgent counterattack, for which he is awarded a Silver Star. Levi holds himself responsible for the events leading to the IED strike, however, and thus the award he receives feels more like an albatross around his neck than a decoration. Several years later, Levi returns to Wisconsin, and now out of the Army, moves in with Nick and his wife Eris, a cool hometown beauty with trauma issues of her own. Nick, dealing with his wounds, and Eris, trying to stay sober, have crafted lives of rigid conformity and routine to keep themselves straight, at the cost of any youthful promise and happiness. The arrival of Levi, hell-bent on self-destruction and pining for Eris, who has repressed feelings for him, too, quickly undoes the fragile stability.
Much is of interest in A Hard and Heavy Thing. I found the battle scene, for example, exciting, especially since it reflected aspects of my own experience of being trapped in a truck rocked by explosion with casualties onboard. There’s not much of LaCrosse as a social milieu or the Army as a culture, but what Hefti portrays of LaCrosse’s townie bars and family folkways and Regular Army and National Guard distinctiveness intrigues. The novel is narrated in third-person, primarily through Levi’s point-of-view, and a series of bracketed asides reveal that the narrative’s author is Levi himself and the third-person story is an amalgamated love song to Nick/suicide note-mea culpa (adding to the literary razzle-dazzle is a minor character named Matthew Hefti). In neither the main narrative nor the bracketed asides, however, is Levi particularly subtle about what ails him nor observant about the world around him, in part because, by his own telling, he drinks heavily and continuously in the years after his discharge.
In two key aspects of his story, Levi doesn’t just recount his life’s struggle through the fog of alcohol, but is evasive and even disingenuous. Specifically, he is coy about revealing whether he really tried to commit suicide while in the Army (the perception that he did being the cause of his discharge) and whether, at novel’s end, he attempts to seduce or actually does seduce Eris. The ambiguous bedroom scene comes at the end of a long day in which Levi gets drunk with his father and berates him for being a stupid jerk (he’s already grievously insulted his mom and sister), gets even more drunk with Nick and brawls with him in a park, and then arrives at Nick’s house and gets Eris drunk, too. Though everyone he meets tells him he needs help, Levi doesn’t hold himself very accountable for his malaise or the turmoil he causes, even as his narrative constitutes a plea for understanding and forgiveness. Why should he? Lead singer of a popular band, the recipient of a Silver Star, the object of desire of the prettiest woman in town, he’s got what every guy wishes he had.
We’re meant to understand that these accomplishments don’t mean much to Levi, but an equally dominant impression is that they fuel his self-image as an iconoclastic rogue whose boorish behavior serves as a catalyst for making less honest people own up to truths they’d rather not face. Not especially curious or sympathetic about others, or even very forthright himself, Levi wields his disdain for people, places, and events like a badge of honor. In other words, his “sense of superiority” is in full-on collision with openness about his “warts,” and it’s not just for his family and friends that he’s a handful. Somewhere beyond a hot mess and trouble-with-a-capital-T, Levi’s tough to deal with for readers, too, who are going to have to decide whether they love him or hate him. The same is true of the very aptly titled A Hard and Heavy Thing as a whole. Does it reinstantiate the rapidly coalescing “trauma hero” motif in contemporary war literature, or is it a compelling, realistic, and self-aware narrative about young men who go to war and the damage that ensues? That’s a go-to question important, ethically and aesthetically, not just in Wisconsin, but everywhere, though more sharply defined by Badger State veteran writers and artists than elsewhere.
Matthew J. Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing. Tyrus Books, 2016.