Lindsey, Ackerman, Klay

2020’s brought four anticipated novels by acclaimed veteran-authors of contemporary war fiction, courtesy of major publishing houses. I’ve written on Matt Gallagher’s Empire City previously, and here will survey Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home, Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black & White, and Phil Klay’s Missionaries, with a little more attention paid to Missionaries, befitting Klay’s status within the vet-writing and national literary scenes. None of the novels make events in Iraq and Afghanistan central to their plots, but the 21st-century Global War on Terror wars percolate more-or-less in the background of the events and characters described. Each novel illustrates in its way GWOT vet-authors transitioning from sagas of junior-enlisted and junior-officer deployment exploits and rocky homecomings with more general reckoning of how forever war has wrenched the lives of adult men-and-women (often now with spouses and children), the national commonweal, and the international polity.

Spoiler alert: My write-ups address events in each novel that occur at or near their ends, so be advised.

Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Some Go Home covers much the same ground as Lindsey’s excellent collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses: the interplay of modern war and the modern American south, as viewed through the eyes of veterans trying to connect their military experience with the vibrant New South cultural landscape shaped by intense social change and incessant regard for history. The south is widely held to be more supportive of soldiers and patriotic war-faring than other parts of the country, but Some Go Home portrays Iraq and Afghanistan war as being as distant and unknown in Dixie as elsewhere in the country. The protagonist of Some Go Home, an Iraq War Army veteran named Colleen, is viewed as something of an oddity by the other residents of the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi. The locals are too preoccupied by time-consuming and sometimes crazy events of their own lives to be anything but politely bemused by her tour and whatever battle-tested wisdom she might have obtained. Colleen herself struggles to put the pieces together; she is a bit of a cypher, not especially thoughtful or expressive and prone to odd fits of inscrutable behavior, even as she wins beauty pageants, suffers through opioid addiction, and marries into a prominent local family embroiled in multi-generational race-related drama. Though Colleen presides over Some Go Home’s opening and closing chapters, she is only an intermittent presence in the novel’s long middle, which alternately trace laughable and deadly serious aspects of contemporary Pitchlynn—the point being that the south’s piquant flavor is the result of the intensity of its polar extremes. As the novel concludes, Colleen departs Pitchlynn on what is depicted as a search for coherent and independent self-hood that can be obtained only by leaving, much as Stephen Daedalus must flee Dublin at the end of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. Stephen is determined “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of his race,” which to a certain extent is what Joyce offers us in subsequent works Dubliners and Ulysses. Perhaps Some Go Home is the prequel for Lindsay’s next novel, in which Colleen makes sense of the swirling personal, regional, national, and international imperatives traced so interestingly in this one.

Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. As in two of Ackerman’s previous novels, the locale of Red Dress in Black & White is a frayed corner of the American-dominated global order. In this case, the setting is modern Istanbul, where a glitzy new-fangled Western-sheen threaten to erase Islamic traditions and older life-rhythms. One protagonist is Catherine, a bored, unfulfilled American wife of a Turkish business tycoon. Another is Peter, an American war-photojournalist now embarked on an artistic project photographing everyday Turks. Catherine has affairs, and Peter doesn’t scruple about sleeping with married women, so it’s not surprising what ensues when they meet to plan a showing of Peter’s work in a Turkish museum of which Catherine is a director. Their romance plays out against a backdrop of Turkish civil strife and political intrigue that eventually ensnares Catherine and Peter, both in the corridors of power and out in the streets, and Peter is given to philosophizing about photography aesthetics, so there’s a lot going on in Red Dress in Black & White (the title refers to a photograph that figures prominently in the novel). Ackerman’s wont, however, is to touch things quickly rather than dwell on them, and thus the novel, depending greatly on atmosphere and suggestion, reads briskly. Catherine and Peter are cosmopolitan sophisticates, and the novel suggests their affair is not to be condemned, but understood as an inevitable by-product of expatriate rootlessness, or perhaps commensurate with the tangled complexity of Turkish society and politics, especially as it is informed, or infected, by US interventionism. That comes in the form of Kristen, a CIA operative who pulls strings from behind the façade of a bland embassy job—she’s a modern-day Madame Defarge whose array of constantly buzzing cell-phones replaces the click-clacking needles in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Ackerman is fond of big reveals and unexpected denouements, and I won’t spoil the main one that arrives in Red Dress & Black and White, but the gradual emergence of Kristin as a key player in Turkish politics and finance and as the novel’s major character in its last third is another development not apparent from the novel’s opening chapters. That the CIA might still wield such power, and have it flexed so proficiently by a junior analyst, is not what I would have guessed is true of the world these days, but Red Dress in Black & White nicely suggests how it might be so.

Phil Klay, Missionaries. Missionaries is Klay’s first novel and first book since his 2014 National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment. Redeployment’s stories featured thoughtful, even cerebral, veterans ruminating about their experience, often in dialogue with interlocutors or in first-person confessional mode with the reader. Much of that reflective working-out of events is on display in Missionaries, too, only the characters are older, with more life experience and lessons-learned under their belts than the typical Redeployment protagonist—as does Klay himself, funny as that is to say about an author with a National Book Award under his belt. In any case, Missionaries manifests facets of literary craft not evident in Redeployment: thick physical descriptions of landscapes and social milieus, vivid action scenes, deep dives into characters’ thoughts and back-stories, and deft flavoring of the characters’ perspectives with the author’s own. The sentences, both those narrated and those spoken by characters, sparkle with unexpected turns and insights.

The plot recounts a fictional minor episode late in the very-real decades-long conflict among regional paramilitaries, drug-running “narcos,” and the legitimate government of Columbia. That conflict that resolved itself circa 2015–the year the novel is set–in favor of the government, which by accounts is reasonably democratic, committed to fairness and legality, and respected in the eyes of the Columbian people and the world. To the extent that American military aid has helped achieve this state, Columbia is an example, as one character puts it, of a war that “America is not losing.” But the actual Americans portrayed in Missionaries, two former Special Operators named Mason and Diego, and a war-journalist named Lisette, are hapless, almost pathetic, fully considered. Mason and Diego were team buddies in Iraq and Afghanistan—a scene describing a big battle they fought in Afghanistan is terrific. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Mason and Diego were on top of their game, while Columbia, by contrast, for them is an extreme diminution, encountered full-stop just as they are entering peak-adult maturity and vitality. Mason as a military advisor and Diego as a security contractor have little to offer the Columbians that might either help the Columbians or reinforce their self-images as warfighters whose authority should be respected. As Mason rues, all the competent and battle-tested Columbian army really wants from him are helicopters for troop transport; they’ll take care of everything else just fine themselves (I heard much the same from Afghan army officers on my tour as an advisor). Lisette, like Mason and Diego, is now past 30 with little to show for it. Burned-out in Afghanistan, she arrives in Columbia looking for a career-revitalizing story, and instead becomes the big story herself when she is kidnapped by one of the factions in the Columbian civil war.

For all that, the principal characters in Missionaries are Columbians: Abel, whose penchant for business makes him a valuable pawn in the internecine civil war, and Juan Pablo, an army lieutenant colonel whose savvy cynicism gives him a curiously sanguine view of things, even when war threatens not so much his life, but his job and his family. Late in Missionaries, we find Juan Pablo in retirement from the Columbian army and now working as an intelligence analyst contractor in the Middle East, where his American counterparts strike him as naïve and foolish. Juan Pablo’s take seems to be that when you are fighting pure evil, or a greater evil, one mustn’t be fussy about breaking a few eggs to make the war-“not losing” omelet. As we read about him lecturing Americans about—get this—not just the necessity but the success of the War on Terror in curbing Islamic terrorism, we wonder what Missionaries is trying to tell us. Something about man’s capacity for brutality, something about what happens when politics is warped by violence, something about wars’ all-encompassing reach, certainly, but also something too about the relationship of means and ends, and how winning might be measured by different yardsticks than conventionally supposed. It’s an idea about the forever wars bold of Klay to express out-loud, if only in the mouth of a fictional character. Juan Pablo is not just another character, though, but one with most-favored-nation status within Missionaries, so does the novel endorse his view, or are we meant to see him now as an apologist for endless war and a cog in the war machine? Hard to tell, and who’s to say?

All three novels give prominent page space to women characters, as if a woman’s negotiation with endless war and its consequences were as interesting or important to consider as a man’s—gasp–or a story that has not yet been often or well-told. Indeed, the men in the novels are predictable and obviously motivated, as if their ideas and actions responded to well-worn social imperatives and considerations. The women characters, on the other hand, are inscrutable and mysterious, and given to impulsive and unpredictable, even reckless, behavior, predilections that also bespeak courage and imagination. That’s part of their allure, no doubt, but also proof-positive of their need to improvise in the face of circumstances, as well as ability to do so. The exception that proves the rule is Red Dress in Black & White’s Kristin, whose methodical exploitation of opportunities and relentless eye-on-the-main-prize are so formidable they make many of the other characters spread across the three novels appear aimless and feeble in comparison.

Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Norton, 2020.

Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. Knopf Doubleday, 2020.

Phil Klay, Missionaries. Canongate Books, 2020.

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