2020 has not been a good year for America, but it’s been a great one for literary fiction authored by veterans. The year has already seen new work published by established vet-authors Matt Gallagher, Jesse Goolsby, and Elliot Ackerman, and coming soon will be novels by Odie Lindsey and Phil Klay. If we add to this group second novels by David Abrams (2017), Kevin Powers (2018), and Roy Scranton (2019), we have an impressive cohort of follow-on novels and story collections by writers at the fore of the vet-writing boom that began circa 2012. Not much of the authors’ latest work concerns war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a significant chunk takes as subjects veterans of American’s forever wars in a nation addled by infatuation with war, militarism, and violence. Such is the case for two titles I will briefly describe here: Matt Gallagher’s Empire City and Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours, both excellent.
Empire City is Gallagher’s second novel, following 2016’s Youngblood, and third book-length work, counting his 2010 lieutenant’s memoir Kaboom. Gallagher also writes stories and articles for big-ticket magazines such as Esquire, Wired, and Penthouse, and opinion pieces for mainstream journalism giants such as the New York Times. Through it all, a distinctive style emerges, equal parts witty and feisty, relaxed and righteous, literary at core but infused with Twitter-honed hot-take badinage. The array of talents and characteristics is on full display in Empire City, a summary of which can be found here. Gallagher tells this speculative and dystopian tale in a fun prose voice that sparkles with wry observations and delightfully-crafted sentences. Beneath the easy-going surface and fanciful plot elements, however, lie terrors-of-the-deep, for Empire City is at heart a novel-of-ideas—ideas about the political and social fraying of America and the love/hate relationship of the country and its military. Gallagher is a shrewd observer of the passing scene, and Empire City documents a point in the not-too-distant American future when human folly cannot be played for laughs anymore. The fractured and dysfunctional America described in Empire City is so in large part as the result of many decades of continuous war-faring and the correspondent growth of home-front militarism. Chief among the problems is that forever wars create an endless stream of veterans who, while agitating for attention in the public sphere, intimidate and confuse the hell out of the non-veteran citizenry who in-turn toggle between venerating soldiers-home-from-war and locking them up. And those soldiers-home-from-war? Possessed by special talents as a result of military experience, they’re full of themselves, jaw-gapingly so to my lights. Each one or each cohort is convinced that their ideas about things are the right ones and that it is incumbent on them to save America from itself. The America of Empire City desperately looks for saviors, but it’s not exactly clear that veterans are the heroes the country needs, no matter how much they or anybody else thinks they are.
Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours: Stories compiles writing previously published in literary magazines and Goolsby’s 2015 novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Acceleration Hours’ subtitle speaks to the curious merging of genres within the collection. Stories obviously fiction sit side-by-side with others equally obviously autobiographical, while others lie indeterminately between the two poles. Bits-and-pieces that appeared in I’d Walk With My Friends, for example, are excerpted, expanded upon, and recast as personal essays. No explanation or guidance is offered in the pages of Acceleration Hours for how to take this mélange of genres, but in an insightful and helpful interview here, Goolsby explains some of the method behind the apparent madness. It’s all good, even great, and to a point: The fictional stories portray veterans muddling through life after service, while the personal essays portray Goolsby himself, a career Air Force officer still in, muddling through his own life. The characters in the stories occupy the frazzled margins of society; for examples, one features a woman who has deserted from the military rather than deploy to Iraq, while the protagonist of another is a gay musician who plays a dismal weekly gig at an old-folks home, where he meets an eccentric World War II veteran. On the other hand, the persona reflected in the first-person essays lives a much more settled and privileged existence centered around work, family, and confirmed sense of place and community. And yet, the Goolsby figure, for all his education and professional respectability, comes across as more adrift than you might expect a middle-aged career officer to be. Like the lost souls of the stories, he’s unsure of his ideas about things and more carried by the currents of life than navigating them confidently, with the pith of the events he has lived through dangling just out of reach of precise apprehension. Compared to the fervor of the veterans in Empire City, the protagonists of the stories in Acceleration Hours lack the wherewithal to know themselves or what they really want, and the last thing any of them would think is that they might be agents and actors in national political-and-media scrums, telling people what to do and how things should be. Because of Goolsby’s solicitude for his characters and his candor writing of himself, it’s an endearing portrait, one close to my own sensibility, sad as that might be to say. In Acceleration Hours, the sense of despair reflected in the title of Goolsby’s novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is intensified (i.e., “accelerated”) by the increasing futility of trying to find purpose and meaning in an America that doesn’t seem to have much to offer in those ways anymore.
The trenchant exploration of the possibilities of fiction and narrative reflected in recent titles by the Generation of 2012 vet-writers is tremendously exciting. The military asks members to think in prescribed and rigid ways, so the unlicensed freedom of fiction afterwards I’m sure has been intoxicating for would-be writers. Now, with first steps taken and a certain measure of success obtained, one can sense vet-authors licking their chops and flexing their muscles as the limitless boundaries of creative story-telling become apparent, available for their trying if they only dare. More power to them going forward, and equal amounts of power to new voices, especially those of women and authors-of-color, as they emerge on the scene.
Matt Gallagher, Empire City. Atria, 2020
Jesse Goolsby. Acceleration Hours: Stories. University of Nevada Press, 2020