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

“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.

Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train”

Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train” is the first story I know of by a woman vet who experienced combat and which portrays women in combat. If it is in fact the first such tale, then it’s guaranteed that “The Train” will be read for hundreds of years by scholars plumming the war experience of female vets.

So let’s check it out now.

Kalinowski is a USMC vet who according to the blurb in Fire and Forget served as a gunner on convoy operations during two tours in Iraq. “The Train” depicts an unnamed woman-vet haunted by guilt for her failure to save the life of her best friend and mentor, a woman named Kavanagh, when they were attacked by a suicide bomber. Much of the story is set before and after the vet’s deployment, but the scenes set in Iraq burn brightest with the vivid detail and emotional intensity of real-life deployment. I’m sure that Kalinowski in her capacity as a convoy gunner had thousands of opportunities to consider the decision that serves as the crux of “The Train”: the right now, instantaneous mental cycling through the Rules of Engagement to decide whether an approaching car or individual is a friend or foe.

Decide right and shoot, and you’ve saved American lives.  Decide right and don’t shoot and nothing happens, well, nothing has happened.  Decide wrong and shoot, and you’ve killed an innocent civilian. Decide wrong and don’t shoot, and a suicide bomber explodes in your midst.

In “The Train,” the scenario plays out badly at an Entry Control Point (or “ECP”) of a FOB in Iraq. ECPs–the gates that permit entrance and exiting of a base–figure prominently in several Fire and Forget stories, and not surprisingly so. In life and in fiction, they are liminal spaces in the lives of deployed soldiers, the place where familiar and foreign meet, the boundary point between a tense safety inside the base and the dangerous, deadly world outside. Imagined lyrically, Entry Control Point might well have served as a better title than Fire and Forget. It speaks to the guardedness with which vets control access to their inner lives.

(I know, I know, I should have edited my own damn anthology!)

The protagonist vet’s crushing sense of responsibility for Kavanagh’s death is rendered directly: “She should have died with Kavanagh. She shouldn’t be walking across the platform trying to reach the escalator. She shouldn’t be in the city at all. She had tried to forget everything; had tried to sink into drunkenness, into meds, tried to stay awake in fear of the dreams, burrow into some dark place that would give her a break from the memories, from the ECP that would come when she inevitably fell asleep.  The pain of self-abuse still felt better than the guilt.  Guilt drove it all.  Anger that things had gone so wrong.”

Survivor guilt is the theme of Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It also figures prominently in Toni Morrison’s Home, about the Korean War, but published last year like Powers’ and Fountain’s novels. Hell, it’s the theme of my own post-deployment trauma, for what that’s worth. So, nothing so new here—unless we begin to parse the particularly feminine aspects that Kalinowski brings to the depiction.  Late in the story, for example, the protagonist sizes up a woman, and the narrator comments, “Cute shoes. She looks at the sandals on the other woman’s feet. Strappy with a faint gold sheen. She could see herself wearing those shoes with a light sundress.” Now there’s a few sentences you won’t find in The Red Badge of Courage or The Naked and the Dead, so welcome, brave new world.

That’s catty of me, but Kalinowski put it out there for us to consider. More substantial is her portrait of the sisterly connection between the protagonist and Kavanagh. Here we have the first vivid description of the female flip side to the oft-described fraternal camaraderie of soldierly bands of brothers. My sense of Kavanagh and the protagonist is that they are much like many of the women with whom I have served. They enjoy each other’s company, and they really enjoy soldiering. That is, they enjoy everyday putting on the uniform and falling into formation. They like packing up their rucksacks and A-bags and moving out with their units. They like the rough love of their sergeants and contemplating the perplexing worldview of their officers. They like doing their jobs, and they like hanging out in the dining facility and talking shit with their peers. They, like Kavanagh and the protagonist, enjoy grabbing 12-packs at the end-of-the-day and drinking the evening away (in the States, not on deployment!). For them, that is as essential an aspect of service as competing for soldier-of-the-month and doing PT every morning. They like bitching a lot but still doing what they are told while “getting over” when they can and yet not earning a reputation as a fuck-up. Male soldiers like all the above, too, but for women it comes with an extra sizzle of newness and difference, and you can see it in their eyes and in their step.  They don’t experience it just as women, but they kind of do, too, sometimes, in some ways.

It’s all good, unless men in their own units ruin it for them, or they begin to sense that it’s all really just a big guy’s game that is no longer worthy of their interest or full effort.  Which does happen in real life, but doesn’t happen in “The Train” and isn’t Kalinowski’s point.

It’s all good, until the war outside the ECP makes it bad, very very bad, irreversibly bad. Which does happen to soldiers male and female and does happen in “The Train” and is Kalinowski’s point exactly.

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

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.’”


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

%d bloggers like this: