Second Acts: Kevin Powers, Katey Schultz, Roy Scranton

Three authors from the first wave of contemporary war-fiction circa 2013 have now published second book-length fictional works. Though only one directly portrays war in Iraq or Afghanistan, individually the three works, all novels, illustrate the expansion of their authors’ interests. Collectively, they demonstrate the continuing development of a talented author cohort first formed by writing about twenty-first century war.

Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. John Bartle, the woebegone protagonist of Kevin Powers’ first novel The Yellow Birds makes a cameo appearance in A Shout in the Ruins, but it’s a subtext of The Yellow Birds—Powers’ deep love for his home state of Virginia–that comes to the fore in Powers’ new novel about history and race relations in the Old Dominion. As a Virginian myself, I’m receptive to Powers’ story and think he’s on to something, for to be a Virginian of any sensitivity is to be deeply aware of the state’s proud, vexed, violent history. A Shout in the Ruins tells two connected stories stretched out over multiple generations spanning from the Civil War to the 1980s. One story is that of an elderly African-American gentleman named George Seldom, who is forced out of his Richmond home in the 1950s by the building of an Interstate. Set adrift, Seldom embarks on a physical journey to the North Carolina home in which he was raised and a genealogical exploration that invokes the novel’s second story, a lurid family saga that reaches back to Reconstruction and forward to episodes set on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (where John Bartle makes his cameo). It’s a lot to pack into a short novel, and Powers sometimes shorts context and explanation for sensibility and mood, which might be described as high Southern gothic a la Faulkner, pollinated with elements of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison. Think violence, think desire, think secrets, think vengeance, think blood, think lust for power, think “the past is never dead, it’s not even past”—all those subterranean impulses that refuse to remain buried beneath the veneer of Southern gentility, and when conjured forth, expose Southern gentility for a mask and a lie. Key to it all is Powers’ prose style, which foregoes just-the-facts simplicity for florid lyricism. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it proposition: A Shout in the Ruins was widely reviewed upon release, and critics evenly divide on whether the novel’s prose is poetically brilliant or overheated reaching for (pseudo) profundity. Me, I like it, but then I’m still a Virginian, and want language about my home-state to reflect the dark mythopoetic spirit of what that identity means to me.

Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. The promise displayed in Katey Schultz’s first book, Flashes of War, a collection of bite-sized fictional vignettes set in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the homefront, is fully realized in Still Come Home. Set in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, Still Come Home tells twinned narratives, one of Aaseya, a young Afghan woman whose already precarious life is troubled further by the arrival of the Taliban to her small town, and Lieutenant Nathan Miller, a National Guard infantry platoon leader charged with one last patrol before redeployment. Aaseya’s and Lieutenant Miller’s stories are told in alternating chapters until events bring them together in the novel’s climax. Schultz excels at physical description, is alert to psychological and social nuance, and plausibly devises a plot that masks its intentions and turns until the final scenes. Schultz is neither an Afghan nor a vet, and charges of cultural appropriation, a hot-button literary issue these days, might be put into play re Still Come Home, but they won’t be by me. Portraits of Afghan women are hard to come by, and Schultz’s rendering of Aaseya’s behavior, attitudes, and ideas ring true and will serve nicely until more representations authored by Afghan authors themselves arrive. And, full disclosure, I contributed ideas about Army culture and tactics to an early draft of Still Come Home, and now am glad to see how Schultz has put them to use in the final version. I especially like the portrait of Lieutenant Miller, who is old for a Regular Army lieutenant but very typical of many National Guard junior officers I’ve met, as he tries to balance the twin imperatives of accomplishing missions while taking care of his men. Still Come Home joins a library of well-turned novels by Americans about war in Afghanistan that combine interest in US military personnel and the Afghans with whom they interact: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ray McPadden’s And the Whole Mountain Burned, for starters, and we might include British-Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam’s novels The Wasted Vigil and The Blind Man’s Garden, too.

Roy Scranton, I [Heart] Oklahoma! Roy Scranton’s I [Heart] Oklahoma! is that rarest of rare birds these days: a full-on experimental novel with little interest in telling an easy-to-digest story in a conventional way. Wearing its debt to William Burroughs, William Faulkner, and James Joyce on its sleeve, the novel may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but I for one [heart] it very much. The first half of I [Heart] Oklahoma! tells in reasonably apprehensible and often funny terms a story of three NYC-based hipster “creatives”—two men (Jim and Remy) and one woman (Susan)–charged with making a road-trip documentary of America as it frazzles under the stress of the Trump presidency. As in his first novel War Porn, Scranton excels at portraying the speech and thought of overeducated millennials who have may have imbibed newfangled Deleuzean concepts about deterritorialization, rhizomes, and the un-psychologized subject, but remain vulnerable to the ages-old forces of sexual desire, rivalry, and jealousy. Halfway across the country and halfway through the novel, the road-trip falls apart and things get weird. What happens next is hard to describe, but remarkable to behold as a reading experience. Reformulating novel conventions on deterritorialized, rhizomatic, and un-psychologized-subject grounds, Scranton describes the birthing of Susan’s literary consciousness through the medium of an alter-ego named Jane and a nightmare carnivalesque American topical dreamscape. Emerging out of the psycho-cultural stew is a long first-person narrative written by Susan in the voice of Caril Ann Fugate, the 14-year-old girlfriend and accomplice of the 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather. Caril’s reminiscence about the Starkweather killing spree is a striking tour-de-force, a Molly Bloom monologue for our gun-addled time–I read its full 40 pages twice in succession and plan to read it again soon. The exact impulse that drives Susan to identify with Caril and exactly why Scranton directs our attention to Starkweather are not spelled out, though ripe for speculation. But the representation of an imaginative-artistic creation—Caril’s dramatic monologue–as it comes into being, and the dramatic monologue itself, are spectacular.

Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. Apprentice House, 2019.

Roy Scranton, I [Heart] Oklahoma! Soho, 2019.

(Women’s) War Fiction: Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War

Flashes of WarThe wars in Iraq and Afghanistan placed large numbers of women in combat, arguably for the first time in history. The literature of the two wars features large numbers of women authors, again arguably the first time such a thing has happened. Searching for historical precedents, one might examine the work of British authors Virginia Woolf and Vera Brittain, whose novels in the 1920s and 1930s featured both scenes set during World War I and characters whose lives were affected by the war long after it was over. Each author had family members killed in World War I—Woolf a brother-in-law and Brittain a fiancé and a brother—oh my–and Brittain also worked as a nurse during the war, which might help explain why they made war central in their novels.

Woolf and Brittain established a promising precedent for future women war authors, but not much following World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the twentieth century’s smaller wars capitalized on their strong examples. Beginning with the publication of Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen (2011), Toni Morrison’s Home (2012), and Roxana Robinson’s Sparta (2013), however, we now find ourselves in the midst of a flourishing boom of fiction written by women about war. Other recent books such as Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War (2013), Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything (2013), Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You (2014), and let’s not forget J.K. Rowling’s detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) signal the very serious intent of women authors to expand the male-drawn boundaries of war lit. To examine this body of work in detail, a good start point is Schultz’s Flashes of War. Containing thirty very short stories set in Iraq, Afghanistan, and back in America and an editorial postscript in which Schultz explains her rationale and process, Flashes of War bumps forward the possibilities inherent in war literature in several interesting ways.

In her “Epilogue,” Schultz, who is not a vet, describes fiction as a means of understanding two wars she knew little about. “As someone inclined to make sense of the world through story, I knew my window into these wars would have to be narrative,” she writes. Not interested in history or journalism, she found herself drawn “to intimate moments of a soldier’s or civilian’s life. Images, decisions, and thoughts so small and experienced under such strain that even an interview with the most forthcoming individual could not unearth them.” Inspired by YouTube videos and news snippets garnered on the Internet, Schultz explains, “Eventually, I filled myself with enough information to precisely imagine my way toward fiction I could believe in.” That’s smart stuff, I don’t care who you are—almost to the heart of what I most appreciate about fiction.

Turning to the stories themselves, Schultz relates them from the perspectives of civilians, soldiers, Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans. Sometimes, she groups them around a common subject to compare and contrast viewpoints. “Amputee” and “Permanent Wave, for example, feature a woman vet and a male vet dealing with amputated limbs, while “The Waiting: Part I” and “The Waiting: Part II” describe the tedious-yet-fraught endurance required of both soldiers on deployment and spouses at home. Schultz’s eye for subjects is curious, imaginative, and even idiosyncratic. “Poo Mission” is about a soldier who has to do just that in the middle of a patrol, while “Into Pure Bronze”’s subjects are a group of Afghan boys who play soccer on the same Kabul field that was formerly used by the Taliban to stage mass executions. A woman’s lot in war is featured prominently in many tales, as in one called “With the Burqa,” which is related by an Afghan woman.  It begins:

With the burqa, it was like this: the world came at me in apparitions, every figure textured by the mesh filter in front of my eyes. In a city with so much death, it was easy to believe half of the people I saw were ghosts. Women sat like forgotten boulders along the sidewalks in Kabul. We begged. We prayed.

But many or most Flashes of War stories feature American fighting men, of whom one is said, “Until joining the Army, he never realized that what a man believes could be so far from what a man does.” The two longest tales—and also my favorites—“Home on Leave” and “The Quiet Kind,” feature young men sorting through complicated emotions and life predicaments post-war. The protagonists are both junior enlisted soldiers without college degrees trying to plug back into life in the rural South, a perspective freshly different from the over-educated and overly analytical city-based heroes of many contemporary war stories. Schultz’s lean and clean prose style avoids literary mannerisms for the most part, but often drops into indirect free discourse (talk about being overly analytical!) to reflect the thought and language of her young, mostly blue-collar characters. A passage describing Bradley, the hero of “Home on Leave,” goes:

At the party—a welcome home thrown by his brother—he’d expected the backslapping and WMD jokes that came later that evening. Even the uncertain gazes from folks who probably thought he’d been killing Iraqi citizens. What he hadn’t expected was this: the soft-eyed looks all the girls gave him, the respectful nods from guys he didn’t even know. In the ten seconds it took Bradley to hop out of his truck and walk across Jared’s yard, the entire party’s eyes found him. He felt their attention like a shot of adrenaline. He’d been places since graduation. He must know things now; he might even be traumatized. And brave. Surely he was very, very brave.

The number and brevity of Flashes of War’s tales are two of its virtues. Schultz ingeniously injects enough detail, variety, characterization, and plot into each to make one wonder and, better, eager to see what comes next. Not every book needs to be War and Peace, and in an age of rapid-fire Internet reading habits, stories that hit quick and hard and get out fast definitely have their place. While the battle of words rages on about whether a non-veteran can write realistic and compelling war fiction, or even has the right to, with a snide side-skirmish that especially impugns a woman’s ability to do so, thank goodness authors such as Schultz aren’t waiting around for permission to tell their stories.

Katey Schultz, Flashes of War. Apprentice House-Loyola, 2013.

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