Structures of Feeling in Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors

Good fiction offers exemplary opportunity to consider what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”—the mindset and emotional disposition and cognitive frames and processes that are experienced individually as part of a larger collective of similarly-minded people. Two recent works of fiction by veterans excel in their portrait of the structure of feeling of distinct cohorts: Army infantrymen in Afghanistan and young black Americans shaped by war and political conflict.

Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War

Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier is a collection of short-stories that draw on Bonenberger’s two tours in Afghanistan as an Army infantry officer and subsequent malaise in his first few years after service. Far from being rote auto-fiction describing familiar scenes frequently found in contemporary veterans’ writing, the stories draw artistic inspiration from the fanciful, often absurd and satirical, and mostly dark literary fiction Bonenberger enjoyed growing up. As Bonenberger writes in his Introduction, it was in his childhood and adolescent reading that he “first encountered the insane logic of Catch-22, there that I read The Good Soldier and Gulliver’s Travels.” Later, Bonenberger writes, “This collection was written in good faith, for a small but discerning audience in the spirit of a non-literal search for truth.”

The “non-literal” aspect of the stories reveals itself in flights of allegorical fancy that re-arrange realistic details and plausible soldier experience to heighten incongruities and dislocations of American warfaring in Afghanistan and its aftermath. In one story, for example, “The Uniform,” a soldier’s uniform comes to life, serving as the alter-ego or doppelganger to its owner’s civilian identity. Another example is the story “Captain America,” in which an Army officer named John Appleseed America returns to the same geographic locale on multiple tours in Afghanistan. The conceit allows the story to comment on military tactical and strategic success, or lack of, over years of repetitive endeavors to “win” in Afghanistan. Like “The Uniform,” it’s fairly obvious in description but graphic and resonant in execution through Bonenberger’s rendering of physical and emotional detail. In these regards the stories are very literal. It’s said that one of Bonenberger’s heroes, Joseph Heller, didn’t have to make anything up to write Catch-22, he just “had to take good notes.” Bonenberger eschews “nothing-but-the-facts” literary aesthetics as both dull and incapable of rendering the highest and most interesting truths, but Bonenberger has observed much of infantry battalion culture and its byways, as well as the tactics of contemporary warfighting, and he gets more of these specifics into his stories than most.

Connecting everything in The Disappointed Soldier is a sense of what short-story master O. Henry describes as the classic short-story plot: a man (or person) who bets on himself and comes up short. A deep-seated sense of how personal failure is linked to the impossibility of the Afghanistan mission is reflected in the collection’s title story, and many other stories also channel the spirit of the sadder-but-wiser protagonists of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wonderful tales “Young Goodman Brown,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and “My Kinsman Major Molineux.” Much veteran fiction and memoir reflects its authors’ sense they have been cheated out of honorable, productive, self-affirming deployments by incompetent military leadership and stupid, incoherent missions. Bonenberger’s aware of these things but refuses to give his protagonists a pass: he susses that the more interesting story to tell is of a soldier’s recognition of how their own shortcomings lead to disillusionment, with little room left to blame anyone but themselves. Understanding that military social capital and self-esteem are built out of a house-of-cards in which the four suits are vanity, ambition, self-delusion, and concern for status and appearance, the stories in The Disappointed Soldier dissect this impossible-to-sustain admixture and depict the despair when the cards come tumbling down.

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors

The story proper in Dewaine Farria’s novel Revolutions of All Colors recounts the lives of three young black men who come of age in the period from 1995-2005. Putting the men’s exploits and thoughts in perspective is a long first chapter set in New Orleans in 1970 that describes a police crackdown on a local Black Panther chapter, with one of the characters involved a black woman whose job as a city official brings her ideas about black uplift in tension with the much more militant ideas about the same held by the Panthers. The first chapter is terrific: the period-and-place detail thick and rich and the worldviews and personalities of the actors—animated by rage but distinct in their manifestation—vividly described. Not to pour it on too much, but the first chapter reminded me of the fiery fiction and commentary I associate with Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, and I leaned forward in anticipation of how Farria would bring his critical and literary acumen to bear on his more contemporary protagonists’ lives and what might be said of race relations in America in the 21st century.

By contrast, however, the interlinked lives of his three modern black Americans—Simon (the son of the woman featured in Chapter One) and brothers Michael and Gabriel are much more placid and unfocused. The young men, from relatively prosperous and stable families, come-of-age in a small Oklahoma town, and while race is never not an issue, the young men seem to feel far less keenly the effects of racism than do their parents, whose constant admonishments that black Americans must never let their guards down seem to lack practical everyday relevance. As the young men explore life possibilities, they appear, frankly, more bemused by white people than at war with them, and just as adrift as many of their young white contemporaries, and they cycle through young-adult career options such as the military, grad school, overseas employment, mixed-martial arts fighting, metropolitan artiste-life, and the like in ways that don’t seem especially tinged by racial hostility and foreclosure of opportunities. All this, I believe, is by design and Farria’s point: he’s describing an interregnum in modern black American life set midway between the Civil Rights/black-militant era and the post-Obama resurgence of much more overt racial tension, when a false calm in the historical storm of American race-relations seemed to prevail and young blacks (perhaps much as Farria himself) struggled to define their relation to the peculiar social-historical circumstances in which they found themselves. Events in Revolutions of All Colors bring the three protagonists to begin a more sustained and mature appraisal of their elders’ lives and ideas, and I can’t help but think that if Farria were to write a sequel that follows his protagonists into the present, their thoughts would grow even more piquant and their actions more consequential.

Farria has served as a Marine and United Nations security advisor in numerous global hotspots, to include Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military and war enter into Revolutions of All Colors not so much in regard to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom but Vietnam and political-social strife in Ukraine and Somalia. One of his protagonists—Simon–serves in Afghanistan as an Air Force pararescueman and later does a stint in Somalia as a security contractor during a period of factional fighting, while other episodes featuring Gabriel are set in Ukraine, where the “Orange Revolution” launched against Russia serves as a backdrop. Simon’s and Gabriel’s thoughts about political violence, however, are cursory in comparison to the weight given in the novel to Vietnam as a crucible of life-forming worldview for many of the Black Panthers described in Chapter One and the father of Michael and Gabriel described in following chapters. For black men who served in Vietnam, a racist military intensified their political awakening while combat inculcated ideas and values about the discipline and training required to fight for one’s rights and stand one’s ground. They also learned to love, or at least appreciate, the thrill of the fight and the sometime necessity of violence, for better or worse in roughly equal measures, though probably mostly better given the precarity and watchfulness required of black life in white-dominated America. This proposition is very interesting to consider, both as it is fuzzily refracted in Simon’s martial inclinations and Gabriel’s and Michael’s lack of the same, and in contemplation of the ways war in Iraq and Afghanistan might shape the outlook of contemporary veterans, both black and white, as they move forward into adulthood.

Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. Kolo, 2021.

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.

War Fiction, Summer 2021

Time Now’s pace-of-production has dramatically slowed this year for a variety of reasons, even as Time Now itself celebrated its 10th birthday on June 23. From 40 or so posts a year circa 2015, this is only my fifth so far in 2021. Part of the reason for the decline is technical: for reasons inexplicable WordPress has forced me to change the lay-out of the blog, and I have to say the new look has unsettled me. Whatever gain in readability may have accrued, the loss of the familiar format has deflated inspiration. Even worse, behind the public face of Time Now I’ve lost the ability to easily edit posts on the WordPress platform—a serious liability that must be fixable, but which has thus far proven beyond me to do so. Very demoralizing, not because I often go back and substantially revise old posts, but it changes the nature of how I compose and publish, and even small corrections of typos and formatting glitches are hard.

That said, here I’m going to quickly consider a series of war-writing events and works that in past years might have merited much more attention. This will have to suffice for now, but perhaps I can circle back to any or all of the subjects I offer brief descriptions of below.

1. Be sure to check-out my interview with Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim recently published by The Wrath-Bearing Tree. Blasim may more definitively be described as “conflict-and-violence” than a “war” writer, but his work has always struck me and others in the war-writing scene as an important counterpoint to the American-centric focus of contemporary war-and-mil writing by American authors. In the interview Blasim describes the artistic genesis of his new novel God 99, which he firmly locates in the experience of growing up in Iraq under the influence of Saddam Hussein and Iraq war.

https://www.wrath-bearingtree.com/2021/07/new-interview-of-author-hassan-blasim-by-peter-molin/

Hassan Blasim

2.  I just participated in a war-writing panel at the American Literature Association conference—a welcome return to public academic consideration of war-writing following fifteen months of social isolation. The title of our panel and the individual presentations speak to the focus and range of our concerns:

Writing War in the 21st-Century: Unbound Perspectives on the Global War on Terror

Hilary Lithgow: “A 21st Century Chapter for [Samuel Hynes’] The Soldier’s Tale.”

Peter Molin: “Wayward Warfaring: Black Voices in Contemporary War-Writing”

Stacey Peebles: “‘A precious jewel among the wreckage of this country’: Contemporary Iraqi War Fiction.”

Brian Williams: “What kind of crazy fits this war?: Considering the ‘Global’ in the Global War on Terror” [focused on Phil Klay’s Missionaries].

Thanks to Brian Williams for organizing and Melissa Parrish for moderating, as well as to my fellow panelists.

3. Keeping up with new war-writing titles has continued apace. Below are capsule descriptions of recent releases, with a focus on summary rather than assessment and analysis. Buy and read any that sound appealing!

a.  Maximilian Uriarte’s Battle-Born: Lapis Lazuli. Uriarte’s follow-up graphic novel to his impressive and important The White Donkey is set in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, and expands The White Donkey’s focus on soldier trauma to a much wider range of concerns: racism, misogyny, economic exploitation of natural resources, and the lives and perspectives of civilians caught in the turmoil of war and conflict, while also introducing new characters serving in Uriarte’s beloved Marines. Befitting the expanded range of concerns, Battle Born’s artwork is much more lavish than The White Donkey’s, featuring a more striking color palette and more panoramic and detailed drawings.

b.  Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood is a welcome full-length novel by the latest (but hopefully not the last) vet-author who first came to prominence as a contributor to the seminal Fire and Forget anthology in 2013. Fire in the Blood begins as a detective whodunit, as its protagonist, a soldier AWOL from duty in Afghanistan, tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s death in New York City. Morphing as it goes, Fire in the Blood evolves into something of an action-thriller as the vet-protagonist battles richy-rich and super-sketchy antagonists who stymie the vet’s pursuit of justice. The descriptions of exotically-sordid characters and places in The Bronx excel. 

c.  Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here’s first-person narrator is a junior officer stuck on battalion staff during his Army unit’s dismal rotation in Afghanistan in 2008-2009. Underappreciated and marginalized by his chain-of-command, the narrator paints a striking picture of toxic military leadership that sometimes comically but ultimately sadly seems to reflect reports by many junior officers who feel they were cheated out of more rewarding tours by their own leaders. Satire and ridicule are the narrator’s primary weapons for exacting revenge, and a plot that allows the narrator’s superior understanding of events and fighting prowess to eventually shine furthers the comeuppance. The portrait of a battalion deployment and internal dynamics, as well as the complexities of missions in Afghanistan, will resonate with readers who have experienced such things, such as me.

d.  Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds’ subject is an Army battalion’s tour in Iraq, with the focus on a sergeant of mysterious provenance and talents (he communicates telepathically with birds, for starters) with no specific assignment except to accompany the designated platoon sergeant of an infantry platoon to add experience and be ready to take over “just-in-case.” The reason for this odd setup is not fully explained, and as the novel proceeds, Klempan adds further mysterious and fantastical elements that bespeak an interest in magical realism and speculative-horror fiction. Determined not to be just another war-novel, Have Snakes, Need Bird’s strength lies in its protagonist’s wrangle with his own doubts as he only half-understands how supernatural forces, a vexing mission, and an enigmatic romantic interest collude to bring him to a rendezvous with combat-zone destiny.

4. Two more titles await reading: Former Marine Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors, about, among other things, a black Special Forces veteran trying to make his way in the complicated contemporary social and political landscape, and Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War, a collection of darkly absurdist tales and ruminations about war and military by the author of the excellent memoir Afghan Post and the founder of the estimable The Wrath-Bearing Tree website.     

That’s all folks–and now back to your regularly scheduled summers. 

****

Brett Allen, Kilroy Was Here. A15 Publishing, 2020.

Hassan Blasim, God 99. Comma Press, 2020. Translated by Jonathan Wright.

Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. KOLO, 2021.

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.

Travis Klempan, Have Snakes, Need Birds. Koehlerbooks, 2020.

Perry O’Brien, Fire in the Blood. Random House, 2020.

Maximilian Uriarte, Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.