Posted tagged ‘Brian Van Reet’

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

July 2, 2017

2017 brings novels by three contemporary war lit “plank-holders”–Navy SEAL-speak for members who were in on the game at its founding. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season takes contemporary war-and-mil-writing preoccupation with dogs to its fantastical-yet-logical extension; Brian Van Reet’s Spoils reimagines the female-soldier captivity narrative first presented by Jessica Lynch’s and Shoshana Johnson’s memoirs, and David Abrams’ Brave Deeds riffs on the rogue soldier motif familiar from Bowe Bergdahl’s and Robert Bale’s real-life sagas.

Helen Benedict, Wolf Season. Bellevue Literary Press, 2017.

Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen was by my count the first Iraq War novel; if I’m wrong, someone please correct me. A story about the intersecting lives of two women, an American soldier named Kate and an Iraqi medical student named Naema Jassim, Sand Queen eviscerated the American conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom by portraying the ruin of its two protagonists’ lives as a result, primarily, of the American military’s toxic masculine culture. The sequel to Sand Queen, Wolf Season takes place in America, where Naema has unexpectedly taken up residence in a small upstate New York town where she serves as a doctor in a VA clinic. One of her patients is, not Kate, who doesn’t figure in Wolf Season, but another female veteran named Rin Drummond. Rin’s time in service has ended badly, leaving her widowed, badly wracked by PTSD, the mother of a blind daughter, and the caretaker of three semi-domesticated wolves. Rin wants nothing more than to be left alone, protected by and protective of her wolfpack, but life in a small-town home to Iraqi refugees and overly-macho military men still on frequent deployment cycle to America’s forever wars ensure that’s not going to happen. Rin and Naema are compellingly drawn, as are Rin’s daughter Juney and Naema’s son Tariq and the three wolves, Gray, Silver, and Ebony. Most striking, however, are two male characters, Louis Martin and Todd Wycombe, both veterans struggling to be men worthy of respect. Benedict’s not completely hostile to the idea that military service might be improving or even ennobling, but two novels’ worth of portraits of America boy-men whose propensity for self-delusion, misogyny, and violence are exacerbated by time in uniform make it clear she’s skeptical that those things are happening very often these days. One could almost feel sorry for Benedict’s male veterans, if they didn’t bring on so much trouble for themselves through their stupidity and vanity, and if they didn’t fuck things up so badly for everyone around them.

Brian Van Reet, Spoils. Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

Spoils, US Army veteran Brian Van Reet’s long-anticipated novel of war in Iraq, comes many years after the author established his reputation as a war short-story author par excellence. Even before the fine “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, Van Reet was placing striking short fiction in literary journals, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is, if anything, surpassed by a story titled “Eat the Spoil” published in the Spring 2014 Missouri Review. Van Reet attended, as did I, the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, which I most definitely wasn’t, so I have a high regard for the intellect he brings to bear on the consideration of war. Van Reet was a tank crewman in the early days of Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor, which is also saying something. A tanker named Specialist Sleed figures in both the aforementioned stories and now appears again in Spoils, but he’s not much of a scholar and as a soldier one more likely to get an Article 15 for misconduct than a medal. A follower rather than a leader of soldiers even more indifferently motivated than he is, Sleed, in true “E4-Mafia” fashion, is good in spurts but more typically wavers between commitment to mission and impulses to “get over.” Scenes describing tank battle in Iraq especially intrigue, but Sleed’s just one of a trio of protagonists in Spoils; another is a young woman named Cassandra Wigheard who serves in Sleed’s unit. Wigheard’s not exactly a super-soldier, either, but she tries, and she can’t be blamed when she is captured by a group of insurgents led by the third principal, a very conflicted and not especially fanatical Egyptian jihadist named Abu Al-Hool. Van Reet seems to be making a point about how war unfolds in the contemporary trenches—whatever the clarity, fervor, and righteousness of the political and ideological rhetoric, for the participants on both sides it’s a haphazard, highly contingent, badly conceptualized and realized mess that’s likely to get them killed through sheer sloppiness. We can see Sleed as Van Reet’s alter ego, while Al-Hool joins the Pashtun protagonist of Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue as a rounded literary portrait of one of our War on Terror opponents, but it’s the depiction of Cassandra that really stands out as the author’s effort to represent “the Other,” with all the attendant risks that endeavor brings. Sleed and Al-Hool narrate their stories in first-person, but Van Reet, UVa-educated gentleman that he is, circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person, perhaps thinking graciously that full, extended novelistic inhabitation of a woman warrior’s subjectivity and depiction of perspective should be left to, well, a woman veteran. That will come, in time, but what Van Reet offers here rings true; for example, on Cassandra contemplating a career in the Army: “Yet more and more, the thought of going for a twenty-year pension has begun to feel like prolonged suffocation in a cavernous, airtight room.”

David Abrams, Brave Deeds. Black Cat, 2017.

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth–is a kind, gentle, and sweet soul, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war and age-based generation gap sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that many junior enlisted suspect them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: many contemporary war fiction titles strive to portray the worldview of junior enlisted service members—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in the Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least; Brave Deeds‘ focus on the infantry squad and young male soldier may be traditional, but the view rendered through Abrams’ eyes is up-to-the-minute.

Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature

July 27, 2014
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Graffiti at the ruined and abandoned Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2008. “Darul Aman” means “Abode of Peace.”

“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after completing Moby-Dick. I don’t know if Moby-Dick is exactly wicked, or about the “spotless as a lamb” business, but I am ready for a wicked book about American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, stories and novels about the wars have been remarkably dainty about depicting American soldiers’ capacity for killing, torture, carnage, malevolence, and other forms of evil. At some level, it seems, they try to hold a kernel of life-affirming goodness at the center of the war experience, whether it be located in the characters, the narrators, or within themselves.

That’s a great strategy for real life. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle inside,” are words to live by. But it’s limited when it comes to fiction, a virtue of which is its ability to take readers to forbidden places. Another nineteenth-century author, John Neal, wrote that novels were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.” The greatest characters, Neal continued, are “scoundrels,” while virtuous characters “are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Edgar Allan Poe knew Neal’s work, it would seem, or at least felt the same. No one’s asking for a war story as related by the berserk narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” but would you agree that Poe’s narrator is more memorable than all the protagonists of contemporary war fiction put together? And his narrative voice even more so?

Poe and Melville are tough standards by which to judge, but great examples from which to learn. Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, in the tales that make up The Corpse Exhibition (2014), has crafted spell-binding tales that portray, not Americans, but his own countrymen as capable of any evil, first by nature and then made even more so by the pressure of war. Contemporary war literature written by Americans, on the other hand, has by-and-large shied away from depicting truly reprehensible–which is to say truly remarkable–characters in ways that are not mediated by other, more sympathetic voices. The only story I know by an American author that entertainingly plumbs depravity is Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” from the Fire and Forget anthology (2013). Compared to the solemnity of most modern war stories, the vitality of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is exceptional, and the story’s depiction of its charismatically ruined protagonists Sleed and Rooster startling. It’s a wicked tale indeed, and though I don’t know if Van Reet feels as spotless as a lamb, if it’s any solace I think more of him, not less, for writing it.

A spate of articles have appeared recently by civilian authors asserting their right to write about war and the military. A representative example is Sparta (2013) author Roxana Robinson’s essay “The Right to Write” that appeared in the New York Times. But Robinson, right as she is, and accomplished as she is, need not worry so much. I for one count on civilian authors to lead the way by demonstrating exactly how wide and deep are the boundaries of imaginative possibility, because, tales such as “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” excepted, vet authors are not yet so skilled at getting beyond the basic first steps of realistic description and gussied-up reportage of their own experiences. Or, maybe the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still too fresh and hot, and the most visionary writing about contemporary war can only be found displaced in stories about past wars. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2010), an opus about Marines in Vietnam, begs to be read as a commentary not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012), for another example, depicts an African-American Korean War soldier’s sexual attraction to and subsequent murder of a young girl. An up-and-coming author, Julian Zabalbeascoa, published in Ploughshares a fantastic story called “498” (not currently available online, but hopefully will be again soon) that portrays a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who uses the pretext of war to become a mass murderer. Guess what the number in the title refers to?

Brian Van Reet’s article “A Problematic Genre: the ‘Kill Memoir'” exposes the limitations of first-person reminiscences by ex-snipers that jumble reflection and braggadocio about the military business of killing. In my mind, and I think Van Reet would agree, fiction such as Zabalbeascoa’s most compellingly explores the complicated emotions and social context that kill memoir authors struggle to explain. But so far, our authors of war fiction have written much about soldiers preoccupied by the way the big, bad wars have impinged on the sensibilities of those who fight, and little about soldiers who find themselves on other terms—if not delight, then an ambivalent complicity—with violence, force, hate, sadism, greed, ambition, selfishness, self-preservation, and killing. Let’s see what the future brings.

UPDATE, 3 August 2014.  In this post, I speculate that the darkest war fiction written about Iraq and Afghanistan might have to take as its setting another war.  In the Letters, I suggest that Hollywood might make a dark, bleak war film before our authors and publishers bring us such a book.  Now, two weeks later, comes notice of a new film called Fury, starring Brad Pitt and directed by David Ayers.  Read the New York Times review of Fury for what appears to be confirmations of my assertions.

More Notes Toward a Supreme War Fiction: Ryan Bubalo, Fire and Forget, Phil Klay, Frederick Busch, 0-Dark-Thirty, Nikolina Kuludžan

January 12, 2014

“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is the title of a long Wallace Stevens poem that includes the lines:

Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.

Later, Stevens writes:

How gladly with proper words the soldier dies,
If he must, or lives on the bread of faithful speech

With that, let’s catch up on developments in the contemporary war fiction scene.

A review essay in the LA Review of Books titled “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction” by Ryan Bubalo surveys major works by familiar war lit authors such as David Abrams, Kevin Powers, Siobhan Fallon, and Ben Fountain.   Writing of Billy Lynn, the protagonist of Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Bubalo asks:  “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?”  Kudos to the LA Review of Books, whose continuing coverage of war literature surpasses that of all the major literary reviews.

Brian Van Reet, one of the authors featured in the excellent Fire and Forget anthology (which is also mentioned in Bubalo’s piece), brings word on this blog post that Army Times has named Fire and Forget the #1 military book published in 2013.  Very cool of Army Times to place a work of fiction above the many memoirs, histories, and other non-fiction works about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars pouring out of the nation’s publishing houses.  And why not?  Fire and Forget features a who’s-who list of contemporary war authors, to include Abrams, Fallon, Matt Gallagher, and Brian Turner.

Speaking of which, a collection of short stories called Redeployment, by Phil Klay, yet another Fire and Forget author, will be published in March 2014 by Penguin, a big-time publisher.  Advance reviews are already lauding Redeployment, and having had the chance also to read it, I’ll praise it, too.  Klay, a former Marine, obviously kept his eyes open and a pen and pad handy on his Iraq deployment and afterwards, and now has crafted stories that open up interesting and important new vistas on the war experience.  An advance review from Kirkus is here.

Dust to Dust author and Generation Kill actor Benjamin Busch’s father Frederick Busch was a very accomplished author himself, having published many novels and short stories in the years before his death in 2006.   A new collection of short fiction, called The Stories of Frederick Busch, brings to the fore two tales from Busch senior’s 2006 collection Rescue Missions in which the Iraq War figures prominently.  In “Good to Go,” a couple whose marriage has cracked up reunites to help their war-tormented son.  In “Patrols,” a middle-aged writer back from a gig as an embedded reporter struggles with a case of writer’s block that is clearly related to the haplessly ineffectual role he played among the fighting men he covered.  Frederick Busch was known as a writer’s writer, a pro’s pro, and it is easy to see why.  Both stories move with a stately imperative not to be rushed, to not reveal all their secrets too quickly, that younger war writers might well emulate.

Ron Capps’ Veterans Writing Project has served invaluably as a place in which aspiring veteran and non-veteran writers interested in war subjects might find their voice and even publication in the VWP’s journal O-Dark-Thirty.  The latest issue contains perhaps the most sensational story I have yet read about the contemporary wars.  Called “The Final Cut,” it’s by a woman named Nikolina Kuludžan who is not a vet but has taught at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California.  In “The Final Cut,” a young single female soldier begins an affair post-deployment with the man—married–who was her platoon sergeant in-theater.  The story starts in an almost breathless bodice-ripper fashion—the platoon sergeant’s name is “Rip,” and the narrator writes that “his body looks exactly how I always imagined it:  a flawless testament to fifteen years of pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups and running.  It’s a body that has fulfilled nature’s intent.” But it gets much darker and psychologically astute as the illicit sex the two share grows kinkier and the narrator’s understanding of the war-related dimensions of their relationship develops and deepens.  Clearly, the platoon sergeant requires more than a cold beer and a brand new flat-screen to simmer down after the intensity of combat; his darling wifey doesn’t come close to sating his need for intimacy, excitement, risk, and escape.  The narrator doesn’t say no for a second to the sergeant’s demands for sex, as if she knows his hunger is deeper seated than mere horniness and her ever-ready availability.  But she’s also aware that his wife lurks on the fringes of their passion, the odd one out in a post-deployment melodrama of jangled erotic circuitry.  The narrator states, “I just want all of us to admit that we’re in pain.   That we are not as normal as we make ourselves out to be.  That we need help.”  She suggests, and perhaps Kuludžan wants us to think, that she’s doing both the platoon sergeant and his wife a favor, that all this out-of-bounds coupling just has to happen before anything will ever be all right again.

Like Stevens writes, “Soldier, there is a war between the mind / And sky, between thought and day and night.”

Laundry laid out to dry in Khowst, Afghanistan

Laundry laid out to dry in Khowst, Afghanistan

Another blog post reference to Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” here.

Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton, published by De Capo, 2013.

Phil Klay’s Redeployment, to be published in March 2014 by Penguin.

The Stories of Frederick Busch, edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth Strout, published by Norton in 2014.

War Fact or Fiction: Brian Van Reet on the “Kill Memoir”

July 22, 2013
Aftermath of a suicide bombing, Khowst Province, Afghanistan, 12 May 2009.

Aftermath of a suicide bombing, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.

Iraq vet and author Brian Van Reet’s recent essay in the New York Times, called A Problematic Genre, the ‘Kill Memoir,'” lambastes memoirs written by veterans who take pride in the number of enemy they killed in combat. He mentions as an extreme example Carnivore, written by an Army vet whose publicist claimed the author had killed in combat 2,746 Iraqis. Van Reet likens the Carnivore author to a sergeant in his own unit who embarrassed everyone by bragging about the number of Iraqi casualties he tallied. That this sergeant intended to get a tattoo commemorating each of them amplified and clarified his foolishness. That his credibility was suspect made matters worse. Clearly, the guy was fighting the war according to a script of his own devising, one that had him not playing a dutiful soldier or conventional hero or leader, but a hardened bad-ass killer.

Truth to tell, though, such dreams lurked close to the surface in many of the infantrymen and special forces types I saw in Afghanistan, me included. A rational approach to war is expressed by an 82nd Airborne Division platoon leader speaking of his feelings prior to going into action in the Persian Gulf War: “You’re feeling really excited about going to play in the big game, and horrified and scared out of your mind that you have to play the big game at the same time.” Horrified of what? “That you could get killed. And you get asked to do things tha you really don’t want to do. I don’t know many serial killers in the Army. Most people just really perfer not to have to kill anyone if they don’t have to” (Quoted in Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Warriors).

But lots of new personnel and units arrive in theater infected by desire to see combat.  An infantry captain is quoted in the current issue of Army magazine: “Every blue-blooded infantryman who deploys wants to get into a fight.  We want to plan and execute offensive operations.  We want to close with and destroy the enemy.  We want to take charge and be in charge.” It was barely use talking to such soldiers of counterinsurgency and nation-building and key leader meetings and training and advising when they were out of their minds to see what it was like to shoot at someone and be shot at in return. Once they had seen combat (and survived) they might settle down and be good for more commonplace things. But often their initial survival, if not success, whetted their appetites, and now that they had “got some,” they desired even more. Like the author of Carnivore, they turned war into a competitive game of testosterone-fueled one-upsmanship, clothing their blood-lust and thrill-seeking in the justifications of duty and necessity. Such attitudes were unseemly and most did their best to keep them dampened down.  But not all felt this way. Some guys just seemed so determined to, as the saying goes, “get their war on.” And not all were ridiculed or scorned. In the hierarchy of soldiering, hardened killers could accrue enormous social capital. Where fear and confusion reigned, they offered toughness and purpose, of a kind. Operating insidiously within and sometimes overtly against the chain-of-command, they used their rank and stature to make the war all about kill-or-be-killed.

It’s no wonder such soldiers’ memoirs sell, as Van Reet realizes, but still he castigates a publishing industry that cravenly vends sensational war memoirs to a fawning reading public. Such fare glorifies the killing it describes, and thus perpetuates war rather than doing anything to end it. But even if kill memoir authors position themselves as self-effacing and introspective, their books are still shaky vehicles for the delivery of truth. The problem lies in the form as much as the sentiments. Memoir, Van Reet reminds us, is such a self-aggrandizing, unreliable, and stereotyped genre that it might be the last place, not the first, we would go to for factual detail or insight about what it means to kill in combat.

Van Reet instead touts the supremacy of fiction over “fact” and in particular literary novels such as David Abrams’ Fobbit and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. “Though they are fictional,” he writes, “they read in my mind, like more accurate depictions of the totality of what happened in Iraq than any of the supposedly factual accounts I have mentioned.” I’ll second that, and throw in, as does Van Reet later in the essay, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as a third novel that, taken with the other two, make 2012 the annus mirabilis of Iraq war fiction. Indeed, each of the novels, in its way, examine the relationship of a softer, more sensitive soldier who comes under the sway of a much more decisive, hardened, experienced soldier at home with the business and psychology of killing. Among the novels’ other achievements, they use the tools of fiction—perspective, irony, empathy, style, tone—to interrogate the attitudes toward combat and killing described above and presented naively and self-servingly in memoirs and histories. Usually, they find such pronouncements swaddled in layers of self-deception and self-justification, and they convey sympathy for characters who at least struggle toward awareness and growth.

But as impressive as Abrams’, Powers’, and Fountain’s novels may be, they are, as we speak, still a feeble countervailing force in a publishing environment characterized by what Van Reet calls “the triumph of the kill memoir.” Van Reet closes by issuing a challenge to veteran writers, other authors interested in war, the publishing industry, and by implication, reading audiences:  we can all do better. I’ll second that, too.

The Imagined Wars of the Heart

March 24, 2013

In an earlier post, I wrote of the similarity of Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand.”  In each story a badly wounded Iraq war vet confronts the fact that his wife has chosen to leave him.  In Fallon’s story, the vet and his wife are so tenderly portrayed that the reader is left gasping with sympathy for both of them.  We want them each to somehow be happy again, if not together then in their now separate lives.  In Van Reet’s story, the soldier and his wife are monsters, albeit colorful ones.  They have not been just buffeted and damaged by the war, but ruined by it.

Both stories are great, just in case that needs saying.

As up-to-the-minute as they are, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “The Last Stand” also belong to a tradition of stories about wounded male vets being jilted by wives and girlfriends.  Alice Fahs remind us of that in The Imagined Civil Wars when she describes a Civil War tale called “A Leaf From a Summer” published in Harper’s Weekly in November 1862.  Fahs writes:

“In that story a soldier faced an amputation hopefully because he had a letter from his beloved ‘next to his heart’; afterward, contrary to the surgeon’s expectations, he indeed ‘began to rally.’ But after receiving a letter telling him that his shallow lover had changed her mind and would not ‘marry a cripple,’ the hour quickly came ‘when they lowered him into the earth, and fired their volleys over him.’  As the narrator commented, ‘his enemy had struck him unarmed and unaware.’  As such the popular fiction revealed, the war only intensified a long-standing literary connection between love and war:  numerous stories claimed not only that women’s love was vital to a successful war but that love itself equaled war in its power to kill men.”

Below is a link to a web reprint of the story as it appeared in the 8 November 1862 Harper’s Weekly, for those who can’t get enough of that breathless, clichéd, one-sided 19th-century narration.

A Leaf From A Summer

“A Leaf From A Summer” is laughable, while the strength of Fallon’s and Van Reet’s stories is their ability to convey marital breakup with a sense of perspective, balance, nuance, and realism.  Examined in isolation, however, the pain of a soldier’s heartbreak is real and consequential.  A chapter called “Dear John” from Matt Gallagher’s excellent war memoir Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War describes the carnage wrought on the soldiers in his cavalry scout platoon when they were jilted while deployed.

“Dear Johns crushed men of otherwise unquestionable strength and total resoluteness.   In the time they most needed something right and theirs, it was taken away from them.  It wasn’t like getting dumped—it had a far more resounding impact on the soldier.  He became rougher, harsher, crueler…. Truthfully, it usually made him a better soldier, but he lost some vital slivers of his humanity in the process.”

Gallagher also explains that Dear Johns “didn’t just impact the recipient.  They affected the psyches of teams, sections, platoons, and troops, bringing home to everyone the recognition that the same thing could happen to them and forcing them to wonder if it was going to.  Or if it already had and they just didn’t know about it yet.  This mind fuck was the worst part for many.”

Gallagher points out that a soldier’s romantic interest represents his (or her) hope that an ideal or at least better world awaits his return and thus makes the misery of the war endurable and grounds his conduct while deployed.  But he also reminds us that many soldiers are shitty boyfriends or husbands.  Neglectful and needy by turns, they might be outraged and hurt by unfaithfulness even while being unfaithful themselves.  Gallagher doesn’t do much more to explain Dear Johns from a woman’s point of view, but Kit, the protagonist of “The Last Stand” and Sleed, the protagonist of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” also present their spouses with many issues even without the problem of their dismemberment and disfigurement.  The implication seems to be that women are attracted by the idea of loving a soldier, but find the reality very difficult to deal with.  Perhaps they also suspect that male soldiers love war and the military more than they do their wives and girlfriends, and thus determine to make their men pay.

Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” can be found in Fire and Forget:  Short Stories, published by De Capo Press in 2012.

Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” can be found in You Know When the Men are Gone, published by Amy Einhorn Books-Putnam in 2011.

Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published by De Capo Press in 2010.

Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War:  Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 was published in 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Fire and Forget II: Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek”

January 26, 2013

Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” had me with its opening lines:

A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus.  We filed behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors” –the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda.  I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.

The second contemporary story I know of to take the plight of wounded, disabled, and disfigured veterans as its subject—Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” is the first—“Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” recounts its narrator Rooster and his best friend Sleed’s participation in an Army-sponsored fishing trip for long-term Walter Reed patients.  The tale obviously tips its hat to “Big Two-Hearted River” and other stories published in 1925 in Ernest Hemingway’s great return-from-war collection In Our Time.  In “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” Rooster’s face has been horribly scarred and a hand mangled by a bomb in Iraq.   Now, seething with anger and regret, he contemplates a life “transformed in a flash I could not remember.”  He lashes out against his parents and is prone to fits of rage-induced impulsive behavior, such as biting the head off a rainbow trout he cannot properly fillet.

And Rooster’s the healthy one compared to his friend Sleed, who lost a leg and his private parts in the same blast that injured Rooster.  A charismatic and energetic soldier when whole, Sleed is now “Jake Barnes and Ahab rolled into one,” his self-hatred and grouse against the world amplified by the fact that his wife has left him and is now, according to a detective Sleed has hired, having public sex with her new boyfriend:  “‘Restrooms, parked cars–my man said he got footage of them in the car outside my baby’s daycare.’”

Ouch.

Spoiling for vengeance, Sleed stalks two teenage girls playing hooky from….  Well, I don’t want to give away the plot details more than I have already.  It’s a brutal, ugly tale, but great for all that.  Fully imagined and instantly memorable, Rooster and Sleed owe more to Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque purveyors of evil  in stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” than Hemingway’s stoic Jake Barnes, the emasculated hero of The Sun Also Rises.  But lord let’s hope Van Reet really is trying to work the same black comic vein for which O’Connor is famous.  If  his rendering of the despair and self-loathing of badly-wounded soldiers is meant to be literally true and representative, then we’ve all got a lot to answer for.

According to the Contributors notes in Fire and Forget, Van Reet is a University of Virginia (Wahoo-wah!) drop-out who earned a Bronze Star with “V” Device for action in Baghdad.  More power to him in all things.

Brian Van Reet’s Webpage


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