Odie Lindsey’s collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses is the first contemporary war fiction title released by Norton, one of the most prestigious publishing houses going. Lindsey, a veteran of the First Gulf War, teaches at Vanderbilt and has placed a number of his stories in estimable journals. One, “Evie M.,” was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2014, where, as it happens, it sits next to Will Mackin’s excellent story of war in Afghanistan “Kattekoppen.” Befitting the impressive resume, the stories in We Come to Our Senses are very together: mature, surprising, and deft in all the right ways and measures. Though Lindsey is a veteran and We Come to Our Senses a first book, the stories don’t burn with the white-hot intensity of narratives by young men or women just back from Fallujah or Helmand and now eager to impress themselves upon the literary world. Instead, they illustrate how an author from a slightly older generation might depict early middle-aged veterans connecting the dots leading back from lives that have come unhinged to things that seemed reasonably innocent when lived through while young. We Come to Our Senses thus suggests usefully and beautifully what Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction might look like when contemporary veterans have let their deployment experiences simmer for a few more years, while gaining confidence and skill as writers–“we come to our senses,” indeed.
Many We Come to Our Senses stories arrive in sets linked by recurring characters, a fashion in short-story collections that works to good effect here. Several, including “Evie M.,” track a group of men and women who deploy to the First Gulf War as members of an Alabama National Guard unit. Far from the frontlines, the soldiers burn shit, get drunk, and pair off in short or long term relationships as best and often as they can. On return, with no battlefield exploits to speak of, untouched by notions of patriotism and service, and unprepared by the military to do anything of significance, they stumble-and-bumble along for the next decade or so. No horrors of combat derail them, but their minds, as was their service, are preoccupied by the romances, flings, and crushes that served as cushions against the stress of deployment. The men drift in perpetual states of wistful mopiness that seems to operate mostly as a blissful narcotic for them, but the aftermath of lusty military youth is far more dire for the women, even fatal. Evie M., whose relationship with a fellow soldier went to shit in Iraq, is suicidal, as is the eponymous protagonist of “Colleen,” who has been perversely abused by a creepy fellow soldier while deployed. Another set of stories features a young woman named Darla who carries a deadly infectious disease, the result of a one-night-stand with a soldier.
One of the best stories in We Come to Our Senses, “Chicks,” is set in Hollywood, but most of the others take place in the South, in particular that scruffy cultural space where the lingering remnants of white trash Dixie bump up against shiny new prosperity and respectability, with a verdant natural world of hot sun and creepy-crawly non-human things, along with lots of drinking and guns and odd encounters with the parallel social world of African-Americans, adding further regional color, as if the milieu had been suggested by 1000s of hours listening to the great Drive-By Truckers. My favorite, “So Bored in Nashville,” is about a young man’s last night on the town with his best friend before enlisting. Lindsey’s typical prose voice is sparse in the manner of Richard Price or maybe deadpan ironic like Chuck Palahniuk’s, but “So Bored in Nashville” accelerates into a razzed-up register that reminds me of T.C. Boyle:
Bars and booze and lacquer and glass and smoke and teevee and tourists and shots, and pit-stop at Randall’s to chop up a Xanax, to snort then smoke then back to the bars. In this city, through the bars, we wind up packed in a room full of ads. Living ads, that is, sexy and skinny young women ads. New England or Oklahoma transplants, wannabe country stars clad in fishnets and bra tops, hot pants and logos, and who proffer shots of some dye-injected Extreme Liquor product. A temp job, they swear, they serve you straight out of their navels, wherever, no problem. For ten bucks a pop they make ten bucks an hour, while your lips suckle shots of their amazing young stomachs. And they’re dying to sing, will do anything to demo. (All of this action in a Vandy sports bar, not an airport strip club, let alone a music industry hang.) And tomorrow I leave, for Forts Jackson then Benning. Signed the contract when the Army offered me 11B, Option 4: Airborne Infantry. I am twenty-six and terrified. Yet I felt compelled to follow through after the recruiters told me how difficult it was to secure this assignment. How rare it is these days to earn Option 4, Airborne, war on and all.
Hoo-ah! they barked. You tha man!
Randall and I depart that bar, we drive on. He says zero about my deployment.
Easily bored, wildly reckless, and scandalously sacrilegious, a hot mess after being dumped by a woman he still pines for, and now eager for the approval of more assured men such as his friend Randall and his recruiters, the narrator will be just fine. In fact, he’s just what they’re looking for in the airborne, and pretty much like every other young man already there, in my three years and 40+ jumps worth of experience. Perfect.
All in all, it’s a bleak vision, at points comically rendered but mostly driven home on the strength of Lindsey’s eye for detail and the right word at the right time. He hugs his characters close, but not on the terms we’re commonly asked to appreciate veterans. Forget thanking them for their service, because their service was basically nothing, and don’t bother trying to support any of his troops, unless you are personally prepared to deal with a whole lot of heartbreak and anguish.
Here, Benjamin Busch reviews We Come to our Senses, along with Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, and Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead, for the New York Times.
Julia Lichtblau’s review for The Common, “War Stories for the PTSD Generation,” commends We Come to Our Senses for its realistic and empathetic portraits of women. “In its warm heart, We Come to Our Senses loves women,” Lichtblau writes.
Odie Lindsey, We Come to Our Senses. Norton, 2016.