Posted tagged ‘Odie Lindsey’

The Dirty South: Odie Lindsey’s We Come to Our Senses

August 21, 2016

OD LindseyOdie Lindsey’s collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses is the first contemporary war fiction title released by Norton, one of the most prestigious publishing houses going. Lindsey, a veteran of the First Gulf War, teaches at Vanderbilt and has placed a number of his stories in estimable journals. One, “Evie M.,” was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2014, where, as it happens, it sits next to Will Mackin’s excellent story of war in Afghanistan “Kattekoppen.” Befitting the impressive resume, the stories in We Come to Our Senses are very together: mature, surprising, and deft in all the right ways and measures. Though Lindsey is a veteran and We Come to Our Senses a first book, the stories don’t burn with the white-hot intensity of narratives by young men or women just back from Fallujah or Helmand and now eager to impress themselves upon the literary world. Instead, they illustrate how an author from a slightly older generation might depict early middle-aged veterans connecting the dots leading back from lives that have come unhinged to things that seemed reasonably innocent when lived through while young. We Come to Our Senses thus suggests usefully and beautifully what Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction might look like when contemporary veterans have let their deployment experiences simmer for a few more years, while gaining confidence and skill as writers–“we come to our senses,” indeed.

Many We Come to Our Senses stories arrive in sets linked by recurring characters, a fashion in short-story collections that works to good effect here. Several, including “Evie M.,” track a group of men and women who deploy to the First Gulf War as members of an Alabama National Guard unit. Far from the frontlines, the soldiers burn shit, get drunk, and pair off in short or long term relationships as best and often as they can. On return, with no battlefield exploits to speak of, untouched by notions of patriotism and service, and unprepared by the military to do anything of significance, they stumble-and-bumble along for the next decade or so. No horrors of combat derail them, but their minds, as was their service, are preoccupied by the romances, flings, and crushes that served as cushions against the stress of deployment. The men drift in perpetual states of wistful mopiness that seems to operate mostly as a blissful narcotic for them, but the aftermath of lusty military youth is far more dire for the women, even fatal. Evie M., whose relationship with a fellow soldier went to shit in Iraq, is suicidal, as is the eponymous protagonist of “Colleen,” who has been perversely abused by a creepy fellow soldier while deployed. Another set of stories features a young woman named Darla who carries a deadly infectious disease, the result of a one-night-stand with a soldier.

One of the best stories in We Come to Our Senses, “Chicks,” is set in Hollywood, but most of the others take place in the South, in particular that scruffy cultural space where the lingering remnants of white trash Dixie bump up against shiny new prosperity and respectability, with a verdant natural world of hot sun and creepy-crawly non-human things, along with lots of drinking and guns and odd encounters with the parallel social world of African-Americans, adding further regional color, as if the milieu had been suggested by 1000s of hours listening to the great Drive-By Truckers. My favorite, “So Bored in Nashville,” is about a young man’s last night on the town with his best friend before enlisting. Lindsey’s typical prose voice is sparse in the manner of Richard Price or maybe deadpan ironic like Chuck Palahniuk’s, but “So Bored in Nashville” accelerates into a razzed-up register that reminds me of T.C. Boyle:

Bars and booze and lacquer and glass and smoke and teevee and tourists and shots, and pit-stop at Randall’s to chop up a Xanax, to snort then smoke then back to the bars. In this city, through the bars, we wind up packed in a room full of ads. Living ads, that is, sexy and skinny young women ads. New England or Oklahoma transplants, wannabe country stars clad in fishnets and bra tops, hot pants and logos, and who proffer shots of some dye-injected Extreme Liquor product. A temp job, they swear, they serve you straight out of their navels, wherever, no problem. For ten bucks a pop they make ten bucks an hour, while your lips suckle shots of their amazing young stomachs. And they’re dying to sing, will do anything to demo. (All of this action in a Vandy sports bar, not an airport strip club, let alone a music industry hang.) And tomorrow I leave, for Forts Jackson then Benning. Signed the contract when the Army offered me 11B, Option 4: Airborne Infantry. I am twenty-six and terrified. Yet I felt compelled to follow through after the recruiters told me how difficult it was to secure this assignment. How rare it is these days to earn Option 4, Airborne, war on and all.

Hoo-ah! they barked. You tha man!

Randall and I depart that bar, we drive on. He says zero about my deployment.

Easily bored, wildly reckless, and scandalously sacrilegious, a hot mess after being dumped by a woman he still pines for, and now eager for the approval of more assured men such as his friend Randall and his recruiters, the narrator will be just fine. In fact, he’s just what they’re looking for in the airborne, and pretty much like every other young man already there, in my three years and 40+ jumps worth of experience. Perfect.

All in all, it’s a bleak vision, at points comically rendered but mostly driven home on the strength of Lindsey’s eye for detail and the right word at the right time. He hugs his characters close, but not on the terms we’re commonly asked to appreciate veterans. Forget thanking them for their service, because their service was basically nothing, and don’t bother trying to support any of his troops, unless you are personally prepared to deal with a whole lot of heartbreak and anguish.

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Here, Benjamin Busch reviews We Come to our Senses, along with Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, and Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead, for the New York Times.

Julia Lichtblau’s review for The Common, “War Stories for the PTSD Generation,” commends We Come to Our Senses for its realistic and empathetic portraits of women. “In its warm heart, We Come to Our Senses loves women,” Lichtblau writes.

Odie Lindsey, We Come to Our Senses. Norton, 2016.

War Writing: The Raw and the Cooked

August 14, 2016
Khost Province, Afghanistan. USAF Photograph

Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF photograph).

A flutter of recent data points raise the questions whether veterans are natural storytellers and whether they are prone to adorn their stories to impress listeners. An article by “Angry Staff Officer” on the Task and Purpose website titled “Three Things That Make Service Members Great Storytellers” asserts that the combination of “mission, story, and time” allows men and women in uniform to “relate our cultural and personal experiences to a group, bring them into the story in an intimate setting, and reveal a shared identity.” Angry Staff Officer cites soldiers from the South as military tale-tellers par excellence, a notion corroborated in “Colleen,” from Odie Lindsey’s fine collection of stories about Southern veterans of the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom titled We Come to Our Senses. The narrator sets a scene in a VFW hall:

A couple of men asked Van Dorn how he was, and he held court as he blustered and bragged. They tolerated this, because storytelling—his or anyone’s—cued up the opportunity to indulge their own tales, to again revisit their trauma.

So the men did just that, they ran a story cycle, memory to memory, barstool to barstool, and on down to Colleen.

But it’s not just service members from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Last week, at a family reunion in upstate New York, my cousin’s kid Teddy, who served as an infantryman in Iraq, at a late night campfire related tales that were quite a bit more engaging than anyone else’s. Teddy didn’t speak of war, and he didn’t bluster or brag, but he smoothly turned routine events of his life into stories and the people who populated them into personalities. Like Angry Staff Officer describes in his post, as I listened to Teddy it was as if I was once more in an MRAP on a long conop in Afghanistan, eavesdropping through earphones to the crew members spin tales about past missions, past assignments, and past lives.

While Angry Staff Officer writes of how service members and veterans communicate among themselves, David Chrisinger explores how and why veterans frequently embellish the stories they tell or write for civilians. In a piece titled “The Redemptive Power of Lying” posted on Warhorse, Chrisinger writes, “I’m OK with lies—the ones my students need to tell themselves, and in turn, tell me—but I’m not OK with bullshit.” Matt Gallagher, who always has something good to say in these cases, picks up on Chrisinger’s theme. In a recent story published in Playboy titled “Babylon,” Gallagher has his protagonist, a female USMC vet living in Brooklyn, state:

Some of the biggest posers I’d known were vets. The pogue who never left Kuwait but needed to pretend he’d crossed the brink. The staff officer whose lone patrol off base became more dangerous with each of her retellings. Even the grunts, it was rare for them to stick to the truth, because the truth was never enough. War stories meant bullshit, that’s just how it was. Deep down, I knew I’d exaggerated what happened that day in Al Hillah to people, be they surly uncles I wanted to impress or lipstick dykes I wanted to screw. I wasn’t proud of it. But still. It’d happened, and it’d probably happen again.

Maybe we’d earned the right to bullshit….

Recently, the popular Humans of New York website and its even more popular Facebook page have been featuring Iraq and Afghanistan vets relating vignettes of intense wartime experiences. The vignettes, or anecdotes, exemplify the tendencies noted by Angry Staff Officer, Chrisinger, and Gallagher: short, well-turned, gripping accounts of extraordinary events experienced by the veterans, accompanied by poignant statements about the events’ lingering significance in their lives. The posts have been shared on Facebook upwards of 10,000 times, and the comments sections have generated hundreds of compliments, denunciations, and other expressions of belief, disbelief, support, and even accusations that the veterans’ stories were fictive.

If the Humans of New York posts offer a glimpse of the contemporary war-story-telling zeitgeist, the lessons are simple: 1) Go sensational. 2) Go emotional. 3) Keep your own experience at the center, and 4) Convey conviction that your perspective of the event you describe is the true one. Don’t mince around; what people want to hear about is either the worst thing that ever happened to you or the most triumphant. The worst thing is always the shock of learning that war is much worse than you could have imagined or can handle. The best thing is always that you acquitted yourself well in combat.

If you can’t hit those notes, well OK, but be ready for a less-than-enthusiastic response from the reading masses. Tell a subtle, nuanced tale reflecting perplexed anxiety about things that you observed while you were in the military, and five, 500, or 5,000 people might be interested. Tell a graphic story of harrowing adventure and personal tumult, and your audience will be 50,000, 500,000, five million, or more. Edgar Allan Poe wrote long ago, “But the simple truth is, that the writer who aims at impressing the people, is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression.” The lineaments of war story popular connection are right there for the taking. Hint—they look a lot like American Sniper. Reading suggestion—another story in Lindsey’s collection, titled “Chicks,” a funny one about a screenwriter trying to pitch his war-movie script to a producer, brilliantly dramatizes and complicates Poe’s notion. Just in case it’s not obvious–“Chicks” will never be as popular as American Sniper.

Many years ago the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed the phrase “the raw and the cooked” to distinguish between primitive and advanced indigenous populations. Lévi-Strauss’s specific subject was food preparation—the move from eating food raw to cooking it clearly demarcated a cultural advance—but lots of critics have since used the phrase to analyze all kinds of human activities, and I’m going to do the same now. War stories, says I, come in two kinds—the raw, visceral kind that use blunt language to describe combat, killing, war brutality, and the rough aspects of military life, and the more mannered and brooding efforts I am calling “the cooked,” which might be described as an attempt to represent a thinking-person’s take on war. Both terms have connotations: when it comes to war writing, “raw” is inevitably linked with “honesty,” which makes “cooked” seem overly-analytical or even evasive. If you’ve eaten twenty straight raw meat-and-potato dinners, however, you might appreciate a little imaginative culinary preparation the next meal around. No doubt, I prefer a literary “cooked” approach, but I’m also in awe of the power of the “raw” to capture the imagination of soldiers, writers, and audiences, so, really, as you work through what I say next, try to avoid thinking of either term as inherently pejorative or complimentary. Instead, consider them as poles on a spectrum of war storytelling possibility.

The great example of contemporary “raw” war-writing is American Sniper. Never mind that Chris Kyle had extensive ghost-writing help, parts of his memoir may have been fabrication, and Kyle himself disavowed aspects of his own story. American Sniper resonated deeply because readers responded to and respected Kyle’s unapologetic and visceral account of his actions in a voice that they identified as authentically his own. Whether it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or not, it just seemed honest:

I had a job to do as a SEAL: I killed the enemy—an enemy I saw day in and day out plotting to kill my fellow Americans.

The first time you shoot someone, you get a little nervous. You think, can I really shoot this guy? Is it really okay? But after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay. You say, Great….

I loved what I did. I still do. I don’t regret any of it. I’d do it again.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

There are many signature elements of a “raw” war story that help register such honesty. One of them is a blunt, hard-boiled prose style, full of profanity and tough talk, as if the author, his narrator, and his characters were really angry about something. Another is unbridled contempt for the chain-of-command; raw war stories bristle with certainty that higher-ups are stupid, vain, and selfish. A third is a thorough self-identification as a soldier or veteran and the assertion of undying brotherhood with fellow soldiers. A fourth is preoccupation with killing and battlefield carnage. A fifth is the treatment of the enemy as savages without humanity or distinction. These signature elements, in my opinion, are diluted in contemporary war writing, American Sniper excepted. If you don’t believe me compare Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which won the National Book Award in 1987, with Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the same award for 2014. In terms of the rawness criteria I have established, Paco’s Story rates about a 9 on a scale of 10, while Redeployment gets maybe a 3 or 4. American Sniper is up there with Paco’s Story in terms of rawness, but where Heinemann’s rawness is a stylized literary effect that impressed critics and several thousand readers in its time, Kyle’s memoir has been scorned by critics, while causing the masses to build memorials in his honor.

Kyle’s last quote above—about not giving a “flying fuck” about Iraqis—is interesting, because it brings into play something I’d like to propose is true of contemporary war writing. The signature elements of raw war stories may not appear as often in war writing across the board these days, but the fifth still persists as a demarcation point separating war writing into raw and cooked segments. The main ingredient of a “raw” war story about Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say, is lack of interest in or outright contempt for Iraqis and Afghans, while a “cooked” war story manifests curiosity about them, attempts to portray them “as people,” and worries about the cost of war on them. I could without hesitation divide the 20 or more works of fiction I’ve reviewed on Time Now and the countless works I’ve read but have not (yet) reviewed, and rate them based on their empathy for the inhabitants of the land in which the Americans portrayed were fighting. Stacey Peebles also (first, really) hit on this means of evaluation in a chapter in Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq in which she compares Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and John Crawford’s Iraq War memoir The Last True War Story I’ll Ever Tell. Crawford left Iraq venomously disdainful of Iraqis, while Turner’s surfeit of empathy for Iraqi people, history, and culture threatened to overwhelm his effectiveness as an infantry sergeant. Peebles writes, “If Crawford takes in nothing of Iraq and empties himself out until he is a hollow shell, Turner takes in so much that he is full to bursting.” It follows then that Crawford’s memoir is “raw” and Turner’s poetry is “cooked.”

Which brings us back to the Humans of New York. The names of the veteran story-tellers are not given, but the second and third are both authors about whom I’ve written about on this blog, Jenny Pacanowski and Elliot Ackerman, respectively. Both are savvy writers and in Pacanowski’s case a seasoned performer of spoken-word poetry. In her scathing, ribald, and often extremely funny monologues, Pacanowski presents her tour-of-duty in the Army and Iraq as terrible to the point of traumatizing. Ackerman’s Afghanistan war novel Green on Blue, on the other hand, is practically void of American characters and instead places a Pashtun militia member at its narrative center. According to the schema I have set up, Pacanowski’s poetry is an example of “raw” war writing, while Ackerman’s novel represents the “cooked.” But in their Humans of New York vignettes, we can see them each moving toward a middle ground: Pacanowski fighting to demilitarize her all-consuming self-identification as an angry veteran, Ackerman letting down his guard to let the world take a better measure of who he is as a person. Be sure to read them, and salute to both.


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