Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead, a collection of ten linked short-stories, ingeniously portrays the ways men make messes of their lives, especially as they are touched by military service and war. Fully functional adult manhood is apparently beyond reach for These Heroic, Happy Dead protagonists, all of whom blunder from one catastrophe to another, exacerbated by alcoholism, poverty, and poor decision-making. Too unsettled to maintain relationships or hold steady jobs, they wreak havoc on family, friends, and strangers who come within their orbit. Mostly untouched by notions of good, many seem oddly proud of the mayhem they cause, as if their instability was not a flaw but an assertion of independence and it’s just too bad their impulses are so destructive. In this light, little about their military service is redemptive; if anything, confused notions about their identity as soldiers amplifies their worst qualities and behaviors. In the moral universe of These Heroic, Happy Dead, unrepentant male foolishness and seething anger are damn near badges of honor that time in uniform has helped the characters earn.
The narrator of the first story, “To the Lake,” illustrates the self-deluded thinking and impulsive behavior Mogelson excels at imagining. The narrator, an Afghan vet, has been left by his wife Lilly, who has now returned to her parents. The narrator harasses her with drunken midnight calls her father Bill won’t put through:
I called again—every few minutes, then every minute—but he wouldn’t answer. In the end Bill was the same as Lilly, same as everyone. People who did not respect the covenant of human relationships. People who believed you could just hang up, walk out. When the Stolichnaya ran dry, I fetched my Bushmaster and a box of ammo, stowed them behind the bench seat of my truck, and headed north.
Crime, arrest, police, jail, and prison lap at the edges of These Heroic, Happy Dead characters’ lives, but Mogelson’s gift is for understanding that stupid people reveal themselves more constantly through the dumb ideas they have about things. A character in the second story, “Sea Bass,” for example, rejoins the Army after some fifteen years when his life has fallen apart. His incredulous son reports, “I listened with amazement. It was true: my father was going back. Not just back to Bragg and the army and the war, but to the life he lived before he met my mother, and before I was born.” Mogelson, through the son, then reveals the depth of the father’s delusion through a fiercely understated description of the father’s fantasy of returning to restaurant outside Fort Bragg where he once enjoyed a meal:
“I’m gonna take you somewhere when you come visit me,” he said, “A restaurant. You go in there and it’s Joes wall to wall, not a civilian in the place. They got a dish there. This dish is the best dish you’ve ever tasted.”
“So what’s this dish?”
“Good old Clyde,” my father said [lost in reverie about the dish’s cook].
I swiveled on my stool to face him.
He smiled. “Sea bass,” he said.
“You just wait,” my father said.
While some characters in These Heroic, Happy Dead are delusional, others are perverse. “Peacetime,” for example, is narrated by a National Guardsman named Papadopoulos:
It was peacetime, more or less. It was for us, the New York national guard, at least. Between drills, I worked as a paramedic for a hospital in Queens. My partner on the ambulance, Karen, had applied to the police academy. She wanted to be a detective. This, for me, was troublesome: as a rule, from every residence we visited, I took stuff.
Characters portrayed in theater fare no better. The protagonist of “A Beautiful Country,” a contractor in Afghanistan, is robbed and left stranded in the middle of nowhere within days of arrival in country. The journalist who recounts “Total Solar” describes his notebook: “Many of the pages featured detailed sketches of me killing myself by various means.” Soldiers spiral downward equally quickly; Feldman, a character in “Kids,” is said to be “Too smart for the infantry, anyhow—although, fatally, not smart enough to have seen that in the first place.” In Mogelson’s army, no good deed goes unpunished or uninfected by moral rot. The narrator of “Peacetime,” describes war’s mockery of virtue: “On the last day of our last deployment, Nevins was in the turret of an MRAP, climbing a small hill to bid farewell to the Afghan Army soldiers who manned an observation post on top. A high-voltage, low-hanging electrical wire caught Nevins right between his flak and Kevlar, right where it could kill him.” It turns out, though, that Papadopoulos is probably lying, but the story of another soldier doomed to die seems to have really happened:
Corporal Kahananui had been killed just two weeks prior. Kahananui had signed up under the relaxed enlistment standards of the late-aughts, between surges, when the army was desperate for bodies and taking any man or woman who could fog a mirror. What I mean to say is that he was fat. It wasn’t his fault. He hailed from fat people—fat was in his blood. His broad skeleton, good humor, and squat neck all seemed specially designed to accommodate the inheritance. How he’d made it through basic was the subject of much chow-hall speculation. No way could he have qualified in the push-up, let alone the sit-up, let alone the run. Rather, some drill with a quota must have fudged his score a point or ten. That drill, turned out, did us a favor: Kahananui was the greatest, most casualty-producingest machine gunner I’d ever commanded. He’d fallen for the SAW the first time he felt it chugging in his arms, spraying metal down the range at Benning. Call it an affinity, like the fat kid who chooses the tuba….
Mogelson’s hapless war adventurers and wrecked veterans are colorful, but they aren’t going to win kudos from “vet rising” advocacy groups, help bridge the civil-military divide, or have anyone thanking them for their service. They’re not “traumatized” warriors seeking forgiveness and redemption, nor are they emblems of misunderstood underbelly America waging class war on respectability and prosperity. They don’t try very hard to be anything other than the messes that they are, and, for them, the military and endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan beckon as easy-way-out places where they can indulge their worst tendencies. The most that can be said of them is they realize that the military might reward and channel their crudeness to help defeat a deserving enemy, but that doesn’t work out very well for anyone, either.
Mogelson doesn’t view his characters as tragic, and despite the crazy escapades they find themselves in, they’re not exactly comic, either. As literary creatures, they resemble the Southern Gothic grotesques of Harry Crews, the middle-class failures of T.C. Boyle, and the always-already off-the-tracks youth of Tobias Wolff: half-baked white American masculinity at its most self-destructive helplessness. They’re fun enough to contemplate in fiction, though not so much as real life possibilities.
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead. Tim Duggan Books, 2016.
These Heroic, Happy Dead has attracted some sharp reviews, such as this one by Justin Taylor and this one by Benjamin Busch. The Busch piece also contains sterling capsule reviews of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, and Odie Lindsey’s We Come to Our Senses.