Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

Time Then: Iraq War Short Fiction, 2005-2010

September 4, 2017

It’s not where you’re at, it’s where you’re going, right? But how do you know where to go unless you know where you’re from?

My last post made the provisional claim that The Sandbox, David Zimmerman’s 2010 novel about war in Iraq, was the first contemporary war novel. I’ve since rediscovered on my own bookshelf, unread, Bob Kornhiser’s Crossing the Wire, self-published in 2005, about an American lieutenant in Iraq who falls in love with an Iraqi professor of English. Its reappearance means we’ll have to put an asterisk in the record book next to The Sandbox’s name: first novel about war in Iraq or Afghanistan published by an established publishing house.

In any case, I’m also interested in knowing when short fiction about America’s twenty-first century wars began to appear. Below is my initial report on examples of the genre published before 2011. Many writers who published early in the game remain recognized war writers today, while others have disappeared and their pioneering works largely forgotten.

In 2005, Frederick Busch, a distinguished novelist and the father of vet artist-and-writer Benjamin Busch, placed a story titled “Good to Go,” about a troubled Marine Iraq veteran, in the literary journal The Threepenny Review. In 2006, he placed another story, titled “Patrols,” about a journalist returned from embedding with a Marine unit in Iraq, in Five Points. Both stories also appear in Busch’s 2006 short-story collection Rescue Missions. In 2008, novelist and short-fiction author Annie Proulx’s story “Tits-Up In a Ditch” appeared in the New Yorker and also in her collection Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3.

Neither Busch senior nor Proulx served in the military, but most of the other writers who wrote fiction about war in Iraq in the rest of the “oughts” spent time in uniform. In 2008, Army vet Brian Van Reet placed a story titled “The Rooster” in Shenandoah. In 2009, Van Reet’s “Blood Groove” appeared in the Brooklyn Review, “Tower Six” appeared in Evergreen Review, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the Southern Review. “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” later appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, edited by Army veterans Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton. FWIW, the only other two Fire and Forget stories previously published were Marine vet Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” which first appeared in Granta in 2011, and military spouse Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition” which appeared in Salamander in 2012.

Many of the stories that would later appear in Fallon’s 2011 short story collection You Know When The Men Are Gone were first published in literary magazines in 2010 or before. In 2008, “The Last Stand” (published as “Burning”) appeared in Briar Cliff Review, “Camp Liberty” (published as “Getting Out”) in the Roanoke Review, and “Gold Star” (published as “Sacrifice”) in Salamander. “You Know When the Men Are Gone” appeared in Salamander in 2009 and “Inside the Break” in New Letters in 2010.

Roy Scranton published short fiction in a number of small journals prior to 2011: “Gray is Green” in the Denver Quarterly in 2008; “Point, Lines, Space” in LIT in 2009; “In Camera” in 12th Street in 2009; and “Never Closer” in Quiddity in 2010. I haven’t yet been able to read these stories, however, so I’m not sure if their subjects are American soldiers in Iraq or not.

War, Literature, and the Arts, published by the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy, published three Army veteran Brian Turner poems—about Bosnia, not Iraq, interestingly enough,–in 2006 and former Marine Benjamin Busch’s superb photo-essay “The Art in War” in 2007, but was slower to feature short fiction depicting war in Iraq. USAF member David Buchannan’s story “Third Country Nationals” appears in the same issue as Busch’s “The Art in War,” for example, and it has a modern deployment feel to it, but is set in Saudi Arabia and not about the experience of combat. A WLA story written by another member of the Air Force, Jesse Goolsby’s 2009 “What My Dead Wife Should Know,” is curious: it is related from the point-of-view of an older man, remarried after the death of his first wife, whose son has now been electrocuted while taking a shower in Iraq. In 2010, Goolsby returns with a similar story, titled “Stepfather,” which is told from the standpoint of a man whose Marine stepson has also died in Iraq.

Another story in the 2010 issue, J. Scott Smith’s “March 25,” is the first WLA fiction I can find that’s set in Iraq, describes combat action there, and is written by a veteran. It’s a barn-burner, too, about a Marine unit caught in an ambush. Smith is identified as a former Marine currently studying in the famed MFA program at Iowa and working on a novel, but as far as I can tell he has not published fiction since “March 25.” If anyone knows different, please let me know.

That’s all I’ve found so far, and without doubt, the list is not comprehensive. My search of the WLA archives has been anything but exhaustive, and three issues of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) dedicated to war (one published in 2007 and two in 2008) await closer examination. My sense is that more war fiction during the period 2005-2010 may be found in grassroots veterans organization publications than in journals published by small literary presses. For example, Warrior Writers, the veterans-writing collective led by Lovella Calica, began publishing anthologies of veteran poetry and prose in 2008, but I only have in my possession their anthologies published in 2012 and after, so I’m not sure what’s in the earlier editions. For the record, 2012 is also the year that Ron Capps, the director of the Veterans Writing Project, began publishing VWP’s literary journal 0-Dark-ThirtyIn 2011 appeared the first edition of the Journal of Military Experience, edited by Travis Martin in conjunction with Eastern Kentucky University. I haven’t yet determined how many of the prose contributions to the first issue of JME are fiction, but the important point is that JME would evolve into Military Experience and the Arts, the online publishing home for hundreds of stories, poems, and essays by veterans.

Let these suggestions be breadcrumbs for interested readers to follow, may more breadcrumbs be discovered soon, and may the breadcrumbs lead to hearty feasts. Please let me know of any errors of omission and commission, and I will correct the record promptly. Bonus points for reports of fictional stories set in Afghanistan, of which I have found no early examples.

The First Fast Draw: David Zimmerman’s The Sandbox

August 27, 2017

The Sandbox, David Zimmerman’s 2010 novel about American soldiers at war in Iraq, didn’t go unnoticed upon publication. It was reviewed in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, for example, and both papers found good things to say about it. The Sandbox has had a quiet afterlife, however: never to my knowledge has it been name-checked approvingly by other war-writers, mentioned alongside other works by fans, critics, and scholars of the war-writing genre, nor considered for Hollywood movie-making. Even after Zimmerman, who teaches in the MFA program at Iowa State, released a second novel featuring an Army soldier, 2012’s Caring is Creepy, his name seems to have barely registered in the contemporary war writing collective awareness, part of which includes Time Now. Ignorant of Zimmerman and his work, I have several times erroneously proclaimed Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen as “the first Iraq War novel.” But hearing-tell of The Sandbox a year-or-so ago, I kept an eye out for it and recently spotted a copy in my local library. After checking out and reading The Sandbox, I’m happy to make amends for past slights and place Zimmerman’s novel at the forefront of the contemporary war novel tradition, while also rendering praise where praise is due.

The Sandbox is narrated by a junior enlisted soldier named Toby Durrant, an infantryman assigned to a platoon manning a middle-of-nowhere outpost in Iraq named FOB Cornucopia, or Corn Cob, as the soldiers call it for short. Corn Cob is built upon the ruins of an ancient Iraq fortress and located near an abandoned toy factory, both of which figure heavily in the plot. Though Durrant’s platoon suffers indirect fire attacks within Corn Cob and IED attacks while on patrol, they seem to have no real mission other than maintaining US “presence” in the area. Durrant is popular among his fellow soldiers, save one, Lopez, a by-the-book goody-goody E4-promotable. Lopez suspects that Durrant, who has befriended an Iraqi orphan living alone in the abandoned toy factory, is offering information about US capabilities to local insurgents, and he relays his suspicion to the unit’s lieutenant and platoon sergeant. The platoon leadership, already enormously uptight and remote from the men they lead, are glad to make Durrant a scapegoat for the unit’s tactical setbacks, because, as Durrant begins to sniff out, the lieutenant and sergeant are party to a criminal endeavor, along with a high-ranking general, to abscond with millions of dollars of US reconstruction money they have hidden near the outpost—the real reason for Corn Cob’s continued existence. Also smelling the money is a Military Intelligence captain, assigned by someone somewhere to investigate suspected wrong-doing on Corn Cob, who seems more interested in enriching himself through blackmail or other shady means than recovering stolen money or building a case against corrupt members of the chain-of-command. Somehow also involved is a shifty Iraqi named Ahmed, who works on the base as a mechanic and as Durrant’s companion on frequent shit-burning details, which also figure significantly in the plot. Ahmed seems to know a lot about things above his pay-grade and to have ingratiated himself with the FOB leadership, and he accesses Corn Cob through a secret door in the perimeter wall that only he knows about, but exactly who he is and what his motivation is goes unexplained.

Durrant must make sense of all this—really, try to survive it–from his disadvantageous position in the lower ranks, while trying to save the Iraqi child he has befriended, and at the same time dealing with being dumped by his fiancé, who also informs him that she is aborting the child of Durrant’s she is carrying. Durrant is likeable in a snarly, snarky way that seems true to the way many junior soldiers are in life and almost all of them are in war fiction—his combination of smarts and attitude is very much the voice of “Joe,” the “E4 Mafia,” and the “Terminal Lance” found in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey, as well as Lieutenant Black’s in John Renehan’s The Valley: young white male soldiers turned contemptuously anti-authoritarian by the incompetence and hypocrisy of their chains-of-command. Durrant’s thoughts about things are not complex—I would have liked to have seen more psychological exposition of how it feels to be a soldier who learns that his own unit leadership not only thinks he is a traitor but wants him dead—but Zimmerman excels at depicting Durrant in conversation with other characters, in terms of crafting naturalistic dialogue that both drives forward the plot and allows the minor characters’ personalities to emerge. In particular, Durrant’s friendship with his best friend, a black guy named Rankin, his cagey discussions with the MI captain, and, most of all the Dear John letter he receives from his fiancé, along with a subsequent phone conversation, are all very well done. Zimmerman also does well with physical depictions of soldier life and combat and, MFA instructor that he is, prolifically generates intriguing metaphors and similes:

“The sky is the color of a nicotine-stained finger.”

“…he’s already about as popular as a wet fart.”

“The wind smells like unwashed hair.”

“His shadow looms on the wall behind him like a dark, unhappy doppelganger.”

Pretty good, that last one, but to return to the plot–a secret door in the perimeter wall, really? Also not helping things are screwed-up military details, such as references to soldiers shining boots—I don’t think that ever happened in Iraq, where from the beginning soldiers were issued suede desert boots that didn’t require polish—and to “Kiowa” helicopters that are said to transport passengers and which feature door gunners—uh, no. Even more exasperating is the novel’s end, which resolves nothing: the last few pages describe an enormous battle, but ends in medias res, as if Zimmerman ran out of time or ideas to bring it to a more satisfactory close. We don’t learn, for example, how or if Durrant survives to write the novel, for example, or if the MI captain, the lieutenant, the platoon sergeant, Ahmed, or the Iraqi orphan live or die, let alone if one of them gets away with the loot. Many critics of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction have hypothesized that never-ending nature of the wars have made narrative closure in books and films about them difficult; the coitus interruptus conclusion of The Sandbox might serve as Example 1 of the problem. If The Sandbox had an artier, edgier feel, such an ambiguous, indeterminate finale might have worked, or if it were a little more integrated with the storytelling ethos—in the manner of the famous last shot of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the Paul Newman and Robert Redford characters are frozen in place as they charge into a hail of lawmen’s bullets—it also might have succeeded, but that’s not the case here.

Assessing the strengths and weakness of The Sandbox, the sub-headline for the LA Times review states, “The dialogue and description of the troops’ plight are realistic. But the conspiracy they get caught up in is absurd.” That’s spot-on, but to end on a positive note, Zimmerman gets a lot of things right while being the first to confront the major obstacle with which war writers afterwards would continually struggle, namely, devising a realistic and compelling plot commensurate with their belief that the lives of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are worthy of novel-length portraiture. Recasting the story of a soldier at war as a search for riches recalls movies such as Three Kings and Kelly’s Heroes, while previewing Aaron Gwynn’s later novel Wynne’s War, while the idea that a war story might also be a police procedural foreshadows novels-to-come such as The Valley and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood. Centering the action on a remote FOB brings to mind Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and Zimmerman’s many excellent depictions of vehicle operations anticipate Michael Pitre’s Fives-and-Twenty-Fives. In addition, many scenes described in The Sandbox—IED explosions, shit-burning details, sandstorms, memorial services, and scorpion fights, for just a few examples—would pepper the pages of future war fiction.

In a 2010 interview, Zimmerman offered an intriguing glimpse of the war-writing business as he tried to find a publisher for The Sandbox. After finishing his novel in 2007, he faced a series of rejections and requests to radically revise it before Soho finally accepted it for publication. “…at that point,’’ he states, “Iraq movies were doing terribly and almost all of the [rejection] letters mentioned that. They said, ‘Nobody’s going to buy any books about Iraq right now from the fiction standpoint.'” Zimmerman did what he had to do to break the impasse, and if the results were not perfect, he established patterns and first depicted scenes that the writers after him cannot claim to have devised, but only tried to better.

David Zimmerman, The Sandbox.  Soho, 2010.

Time Now Fiction: Captains Dietz and Avis

August 8, 2017

Apollo and Daphne, by Francesco Albini, circa 1615-1620.

This story, titled “Captains Dietz and Avis,” is based on Ovid’s retelling of the Daphne and Apollo myth.  It is the third or maybe fourth and last myth I’ve written and posted that adapt Ovid’s The Metamorphosis in ways relevant to America’s 21st-century wars.  It can also be read as a companion piece to my last blog post, about 2017’s flurry of women-authored and women-centric war-writing.

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Captain Avis, male, married, had been at the FOB for three months when Captain Dietz, female, also married, but not to Captain Avis, arrived. One of the other new arrivals reported that Captain Dietz had been in tears on the helicopter ride in. She never expected to end up so far downrange, and now she faced a year apart from her husband, who was stationed on another FOB elsewhere in Afghanistan. Captain Avis had helped calm Captain Dietz down, speaking to her kindly, helping get her stuff to her quarters, and taking her to the dining facility for her first meal there. All seemed good, but not really, because everyone could tell Captain Dietz was already being a little too solicitous. “Be wary of the guy who just wants to be your friend,” was the by-word for the women on the camp, because it always turned out such men wanted more than friendship. Truth-be-told, within the admonishment was the hint that the women themselves might not trust their own desires and defenses as their year downrange unfolded. Better to hang with the other women, the wisdom was, or the cohort of men and women with whom you arrived, or the men and women who worked in your immediate vicinity.

In this case, though, it didn’t help that Captain Avis and Captain Dietz were both signal officers assigned to the commo shop, which meant they were together roughly 18 hours a day. At first it didn’t look so bad, as Captain Avis showed her the ropes and Captain Dietz loosened up. Soon, she was volunteering for missions outside the wire and had made many friends among the other soldiers across the camp. But then things got worse. It began when insurgents targeted the camp with accurate mortar and rocket fire, which put everyone on edge and made restful sleep difficult. Then one of the most popular soldiers on camp was killed by an IED. As the war’s dangers overtook the camp, everyone’s mood tightened and Captain Dietz especially began to go downhill. First her good cheer vanished and then she began dropping weight. She didn’t say anything to anyone about Captain Avis, but she asked the commander about reassignment to her husband’s FOB, or to be allowed to go visit him. That couldn’t happen, though, and Captain Avis continued to hover about her, only now it clearly didn’t seem healthy, or even appropriate. He was always with her and in a way, such as when they ate alone together in the dining facility, that made it seem that others weren’t welcome to join them. Everyone could see that he was always talking to her and that she wasn’t enjoying it.

After three steadily deteriorating weeks, Captain Dietz collapsed from exhaustion and strain. It wasn’t just the combat. Captain Avis had told her that he was divorcing his wife and that he now considered Captain Dietz his confidante, or even his soulmate, possibly his destiny. He wanted her to leave her spouse, too, so they could be together. He explained how he felt they had bonded under the stress of combat and that their shared experience in Afghanistan would serve as the basis for their future together. Captain Dietz tried unsuccessfully to hold Captain Avis at arm’s length, but it didn’t work and no one interceded to help. She never let Captain Avis touch her, but instead of getting the message that she wasn’t interested, Captain Avis took her rejection as a sign that Captain Dietz was really meant for him. Captain Dietz missed her husband terribly and blamed Captain Avis, not the war, for ruining her deployment. After passing out on the way from her hootch to the laundry facility, Captain Dietz spent three days in the Troop Medical Clinic. Then she was transferred to another FOB, where she served out her tour without any real work to do. She killed time listlessly in her hootch, marking off days on the calendar nailed to the plywood partition in the women’s bay and emailing and chatting with her husband. When her husband sent Captain Avis’s commander photocopies of the love-struck laments Captain Avis had posted on his Facebook page that were clearly directed at Captain Dietz, the commander used them as the basis for a letter of reprimand to be placed in Captain Avis’s file. Captain Avis protested that it was all a misunderstanding and that he and Captain Dietz were just friends, but the commander ordered Captain Avis to never contact Captain Dietz again and to cut out the crazy Facebook postings.

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.

Life During Forever Wartime: Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Elyse Fenton

April 2, 2017

The contemporary war literature genre, a decade or so old, now sees the welcome appearance of second titles by authors whose first books helped create the genre. This year, for example, brings the release of You Know When the Men Are Gone author Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages, Elliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing, his follow-up to Green on Blue, and Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, her second volume of poetry following Clamor. Though none of the works directly concern war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are of interest to this blog for what they tell of the growth of their authors as writers, as well as the direction of their thoughts, formed by war and now exploring new themes and subjects, or, more accurately, variations on old ones: the human cost of America’s endless warfaring.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages takes place in Jordan in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Its primary narrator is Cassandra “Cass” Hugo, the wife of a mid-ranks US Army foreign service officer named Dan. Cass and Dan are not as happy as they might be, unwanted childlessness having withered their love and Dan, consumed by his job, working long hours. Cass finds herself bored and uneasy, nominally a dutiful military spouse interested in keeping up appearances, but a little more susceptible to intrigue and drama than she realizes. Into the lives of Dan and Cass come Creighton “Crick” Brickshaw, another Army officer, and his wife Margaret, along with their baby son Mather. Dan and Cass are Crick and Margaret’s sponsors, and while Dan and Crick bond easily enough, as officers on deployment generally do, Margaret and Cass circle each other tentatively, separated by disposition and outlook. Cass is conscientious and meticulous and Margaret thoughtless and sloppy, but both are sensitive to the point of skittishness, and their dependence on their mostly-absent husbands for love, lifestyle, and security makes them extremely vulnerable. Acting out their impulses against the backdrop of a culture and people they little understand, each makes major mistakes. The catalyst for the novel’s plot is a car accident, not a big mishap as things go, but one here with awful consequences. When Margaret departs for the police station to file a report, Cass volunteers to watch Mather. Alone with Mather for hours, Cass finds Margaret’s journal, which she begins reading, though she knows she shouldn’t. In a second narration revealed by the diary, Cass learns of a hidden life full of disturbing events that now helps account for Margaret’s failure to return.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing portrays an Iraqi-American protagonist named Haris who travels to Syria to fight against the repressive government of President Bashar al-Assad. Haris has fought alongside Americans in Iraq, but troubled by the experience and finding life in America unsatisfying, he yearns for redemption and purpose. Most of the novel takes place not in Syria, though, but in and around the southern Turkey town of Antep, as Haris finds crossing the closed border between the two countries no easy task. Adventures and mysteries quickly accumulate; as an Arab and Muslim, Haris possesses advantages the all-American characters in The Confusion of Languages lack, but he too has been softened by American life, and subsequently finds himself constantly outmatched by the complex and damaged Turks and Syrians he encounters. The advisor team chief I replaced in Afghanistan in 2008 told me that Afghans were rational decision-makers, as long as you understood that their families had already suffered much violence and early death, they were aware that they themselves might be killed any moment, and they were perpetually worried about their families’ financial prosperity in the event of their sudden death. That proved good advice during my year in Afghanistan, and some of that same insecurity underlies the portraits of Syrians, Turks, and Iraqis in Dark at the Crossing. American characters, a Special Forces officer with whom Haris fought in Iraq and thinks about often and an NGO Haris meets in Antep, seem slow in comparison: much like Fallon’s Dan and Crick, if not exactly blustering oafs, they are over-confident and about as self-aware as bricks, whatever claims to professional competence they might project.

Ackerman’s tone is dark and ominous, in the manner of Graham Greene, and so it seems only a matter of time before things go bad for Haris, which they do, by turns worse-and-worse in ever-more surprising plot twists. Things don’t end well for Fallon’s characters, either, though their chin-up and chirpy tones, as conveyed by the novel’s dual narrations, masks the catastrophe, put into play by their naivety, that awaits them–while Haris seems to know things are bound to end badly, the two young American women in Fallon’s novel have trouble imagining anything really terrible can befall them. Both stories interest through their portrayal of adults, rather than the post-adolescents who populate most contemporary war literature, and both authors tap an ages-old theme, now truer than ever, regarding Americans abroad: their delusions and essential immaturity poorly equips them to understand the complexities of a region ravaged by recent conflict on top of the thousands of years of near-continuous strife that preceded it.

The end-of-American-innocence is also on display in Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, though the poems are situated domestically within the author’s household and hometown. An epigraph reveals that Fenton’s daughter is the “sweetest insurgent,” but the poems themselves don’t document the redemptive power of motherhood or the promise of youth, but the blighted cultural landscape with which marriage, motherhood, and youth must now contend. The forever wars (Fenton’s husband is a veteran) linger in the backdrop of Fenton’s meditations, figuring most prominently by providing harrowing new vocabulary that speaks to the angst of the time: “insurgent,” “human shield,” “innocent victim,” “double tap,” and “interrogation report.” The final lines of the title poem provide a vivid example:

….not every bomb can be
dismantled so it must stay buried,
one good ear bent & ticking in the dirt.                                                          

Images of fires, helicopters, and other variations on human crisis, along with those depicting death in the natural world, filter through the poems, too, as actual occurrences, things to worry about, and metaphors for emotional and psychological stress. Professions of vulnerability compete with avowals to fortify; the report of the senses, linked to the urges of desire, is ambiguously pitched between rush to disaster and instinct for survival. In “Wild Deer,” for example, Fenton forebodingly dwells on the death of animals with which she identifies:

Wild Deer

They come down from the hill wilds overnight, three wild deer
drawn to the morning glory’d wire of our lies, our rows

of plenty drawn between the spanse of scrub and road.

In the deer pen of my mind the wildest thoughts nose through
the scurf to nibble juniper, forget what green desire brought them

here. More timid than their summer kin October deer step

soft-shod through the frosted noose of breath that ropes
each hornless head. How easily they start and scare. How easily

I turn from them before the sun-gilt leaves they hungered for

leave them starved of any thought but home. No gentling I know
will lead them out. They’ll lunge themselves to death by a neighbor’s

buckshot or a broken neck. But first they’ll eat their fill.

The tone is terse, fragmented, and haunted; Fenton, I believe, distrusts sensational images (as well as clichéd ones) and thus fights to bring into being a new survivalist rhetoric adequate to life during perpetual wartime. When words such as courage and community are exhausted, she implies, concepts such as love and family are imperiled, too.

The last poem in Sweet Insurgent is titled “Independence Day,” and it’s not a celebration; Ackerman’s, Fallon’s, and Fenton’s excellent books each dramatize deeply-seated concern connected to the downward spiral of America’s frazzled empire. Reverberating through the three works in varying pitches, dawning on the reader with the force of epiphany, is the realization that Americans are having a lot of trouble dealing with problems that being an American has brought on.

Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing.  Knopf, 2017.

Siobhan Fallon, The Confusion of Languages. GP Putnam’s Sons, forthcoming in June, 2017.

Elyse Fenton, Sweet Insurgent. Saturnalia Books, 2017.

Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead

March 14, 2017

Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead, a collection of ten linked short-stories, ingeniously portrays the ways men make messes of their lives, especially as they are touched by military service and war. Fully functional adult manhood is apparently beyond reach for These Heroic, Happy Dead protagonists, all of whom blunder from one catastrophe to another, exacerbated by alcoholism, poverty, and poor decision-making. Too unsettled to maintain relationships or hold steady jobs, they wreak havoc on family, friends, and strangers who come within their orbit. Mostly untouched by notions of good, many seem oddly proud of the mayhem they cause, as if their instability was not a flaw but an assertion of independence and it’s just too bad their impulses are so destructive. In this light, little about their military service is redemptive; if anything, confused notions about their identity as soldiers amplifies their worst qualities and behaviors. In the moral universe of These Heroic, Happy Dead, unrepentant male foolishness and seething anger are damn near badges of honor that time in uniform has helped the characters earn.

The narrator of the first story, “To the Lake,” illustrates the self-deluded thinking and impulsive behavior Mogelson excels at imagining. The narrator, an Afghan vet, has been left by his wife Lilly, who has now returned to her parents. The narrator harasses her with drunken midnight calls her father Bill won’t put through:

I called again—every few minutes, then every minute—but he wouldn’t answer. In the end Bill was the same as Lilly, same as everyone. People who did not respect the covenant of human relationships. People who believed you could just hang up, walk out. When the Stolichnaya ran dry, I fetched my Bushmaster and a box of ammo, stowed them behind the bench seat of my truck, and headed north.

Crime, arrest, police, jail, and prison lap at the edges of These Heroic, Happy Dead characters’ lives, but Mogelson’s gift is for understanding that stupid people reveal themselves more constantly through the dumb ideas they have about things. A character in the second story, “Sea Bass,” for example, rejoins the Army after some fifteen years when his life has fallen apart. His incredulous son reports, “I listened with amazement. It was true: my father was going back. Not just back to Bragg and the army and the war, but to the life he lived before he met my mother, and before I was born.” Mogelson, through the son, then reveals the depth of the father’s delusion through a fiercely understated description of the father’s fantasy of returning to restaurant outside Fort Bragg where he once enjoyed a meal:

“I’m gonna take you somewhere when you come visit me,” he said, “A restaurant. You go in there and it’s Joes wall to wall, not a civilian in the place. They got a dish there. This dish is the best dish you’ve ever tasted.”
….

“So what’s this dish?”

“Good old Clyde,” my father said [lost in reverie about the dish’s cook].

I swiveled on my stool to face him.

He smiled. “Sea bass,” he said.

“Sea bass.”

“You just wait,” my father said.

While some characters in These Heroic, Happy Dead are delusional, others are perverse. “Peacetime,” for example, is narrated by a National Guardsman named Papadopoulos:

It was peacetime, more or less. It was for us, the New York national guard, at least. Between drills, I worked as a paramedic for a hospital in Queens. My partner on the ambulance, Karen, had applied to the police academy. She wanted to be a detective. This, for me, was troublesome: as a rule, from every residence we visited, I took stuff.

Characters portrayed in theater fare no better. The protagonist of “A Beautiful Country,” a contractor in Afghanistan, is robbed and left stranded in the middle of nowhere within days of arrival in country. The journalist who recounts “Total Solar” describes his notebook: “Many of the pages featured detailed sketches of me killing myself by various means.” Soldiers spiral downward equally quickly; Feldman, a character in “Kids,” is said to be “Too smart for the infantry, anyhow—although, fatally, not smart enough to have seen that in the first place.” In Mogelson’s army, no good deed goes unpunished or uninfected by moral rot. The narrator of “Peacetime,” describes war’s mockery of virtue: “On the last day of our last deployment, Nevins was in the turret of an MRAP, climbing a small hill to bid farewell to the Afghan Army soldiers who manned an observation post on top. A high-voltage, low-hanging electrical wire caught Nevins right between his flak and Kevlar, right where it could kill him.” It turns out, though, that Papadopoulos is probably lying, but the story of another soldier doomed to die seems to have really happened:

Corporal Kahananui had been killed just two weeks prior. Kahananui had signed up under the relaxed enlistment standards of the late-aughts, between surges, when the army was desperate for bodies and taking any man or woman who could fog a mirror. What I mean to say is that he was fat. It wasn’t his fault. He hailed from fat people—fat was in his blood. His broad skeleton, good humor, and squat neck all seemed specially designed to accommodate the inheritance. How he’d made it through basic was the subject of much chow-hall speculation. No way could he have qualified in the push-up, let alone the sit-up, let alone the run. Rather, some drill with a quota must have fudged his score a point or ten. That drill, turned out, did us a favor: Kahananui was the greatest, most casualty-producingest machine gunner I’d ever commanded. He’d fallen for the SAW the first time he felt it chugging in his arms, spraying metal down the range at Benning. Call it an affinity, like the fat kid who chooses the tuba….

Mogelson’s hapless war adventurers and wrecked veterans are colorful, but they aren’t going to win kudos from “vet rising” advocacy groups, help bridge the civil-military divide, or have anyone thanking them for their service. They’re not “traumatized” warriors seeking forgiveness and redemption, nor are they emblems of misunderstood underbelly America waging class war on respectability and prosperity. They don’t try very hard to be anything other than the messes that they are, and, for them, the military and endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan beckon as easy-way-out places where they can indulge their worst tendencies. The most that can be said of them is they realize that the military might reward and channel their crudeness to help defeat a deserving enemy, but that doesn’t work out very well for anyone, either.

Mogelson doesn’t view his characters as tragic, and despite the crazy escapades they find themselves in, they’re not exactly comic, either. As literary creatures, they resemble the Southern Gothic grotesques of Harry Crews, the middle-class failures of T.C. Boyle, and the always-already off-the-tracks youth of Tobias Wolff: half-baked white American masculinity at its most self-destructive helplessness. They’re fun enough to contemplate in fiction, though not so much as real life possibilities.

Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead.  Tim Duggan Books, 2016.

****

These Heroic, Happy Dead has attracted some sharp reviews, such as this one by Justin Taylor and this one by Benjamin Busch. The Busch piece also contains sterling capsule reviews of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, and Odie Lindsey’s We Come to Our Senses.

 

It’s Complicated: Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant

March 7, 2017

Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant dares to be different. For starters, the novel’s protagonist, a young lieutenant named Emma Fowler, the platoon leader of an Army unit in Iraq tasked with recovering damaged American vehicles, is not a white male combat arms soldier, the usual hero of war fiction. That’s excellent right there; during my own deployment in Afghanistan I met many young women lieutenants, graduates of service academies and ROTC programs, perched in charge of units that were “all dudes,” or mostly so. They all seemed like the “good lieutenants” Terrell writes of: eager to do well, trying to project competence and fit in while also aware of their status as fiercely-judged pioneers and role models. Terrell, a former war correspondent, must have had his curiosity piqued by seeing the same while embedded with units in Iraq. The recent revelation of a popular Facebook page devoted to sharing pictures of female Marines and commenting on their looks and sex lives reinforces the notion that the military is deeply sexist and hostile to women, despite official policies and programs promoting gender equality. Very relevantly, then, The Good Lieutenant portrays the difficulties women face trying to honorably negotiate a culture that cherishes traditional masculine values to the point of pervasive misogyny. Even better, the novel details the particulars of character and situation that make Fowler’s effort to be “good” so hard.

The Good Lieutenant’s interest in gender is not all that makes it different. Against the grain of most fiction, Terrell narrates Fowler’s war in reverse chronological order. The most recent, most eventful act in the novel—an IED explosion in Iraq–arrives in the first chapter, with the subsequent chapters recounting scenes prior to the climactic introduction, not told “in retrospect” as Fowler remembers things, but portrayed sequentially backwards through time to Fowler’s unit’s train-up at Fort Riley, Kansas. I’ve read a lot, but it took for me a smart review of The Good Lieutenant in New Statesman to identify literary precedents for Terrell’s flipped narration in avant-garde theater and film. Telling a story in reverse order forfeits much of narrative’s dependable suspense-then-climax allure. Sure enough, in The Good Lieutenant, sensational combat scenes, dastardly war crimes, and treacherous military perfidy give way to events that are, frankly, mundane in comparison, but which Terrell’s narrative logic insists we contemplate as cumulatively most important and engaging. Even more unsettling is the disappearance of characters who occupy considerable page space in the opening chapters. An Iraqi interpreter and a mute Iraqi youth who figure prominently in scenes set in Iraq, for examples, drop out of the book one-third of the way in for the simple reasons that Fowler has not yet met them and Terrell chooses not to trace their backstories any further.

The effect is disorienting, which is at least half the point: Terrell’s not interested in programmatic depictions, but in having us respond slowly and cerebrally, rather than quickly and emotionally, to a complicated set of circumstances and events. He helpfully provides an epilogue that brings us back to the IED explosion to make final sense of things, but he’s not especially interested in coddling readers. Like the narratological pyrotechnics, the prose surface of The Good Lieutenant confounds easy apprehension. Terrell offers minimal exposition to help to stage and connect events, with most scenes joined in media res and ended just as abruptly, and he’s apt to describe things suggestively rather than literally. Fowler and the other characters speak to each other in much the same way: clipped, enigmatic comments whose meaning might be understood by each other in context but must be guessed at by readers. Not that this is a bad thing, it bears emphasizing; literalness is a problem in much war fiction, and while The Good Lieutenant demands alert, not-easily-intimidated readers, it’s not Ulysses, either. Terrell’s interest in the pre-history of a traumatizing event, rather than its post-history, is bracing. Combat death is almost always personal, as the survivors interrogate their own complicity in the deaths of fellow soldiers with whom they have lived and worked intensively, and for officers the onus of responsibility is especially strong: The Good Lieutenant illustrates how in a military at war, choices and relationships, born of character and biography, work inexorably to bring soldiers to the point where some live and some die.

All the above said, it’s Terrell’s portrait of Fowler that interests most. The view is of a complicated and flawed young woman, one who wants to do right, but who tends to over-think things and yet still is not able to satisfactorily or effectively stitch together the disparate pieces of her life. Fowler is indeed, by appearances, “good”—her troops call her “Family Values” for her constant admonishments to live wholesomely. She leads by-the-book and tries to be a team player, which is not always a smart move for any officer and which proves disastrous for Fowler. Her goody-two-shoes approach to military leadership is inspired by a dysfunctional family history that left her in charge of a younger brother from an early age. Fowler’s over-developed senses of responsibility and fairness aren’t the worst things in the world, all things considered, but her brother’s contempt for her cues Fowler that her dutiful approach to life reflects insecurity and rigidity rather than reason and kindness.

In uniform, Fowler is mostly isolated from her peers until finding a friend in Lieutenant Pulowski, a signal officer who works at regimental headquarters. Pulowski is also an outlier; he hates the Army and, a proud fobbit, is scared to go outside the wire. He hides his fears behind a misanthropic contempt for gung-ho officers such as Fowler’s company commander Captain Hartz and regimental commander Colonel Seacourt. Pulowski rightly identifies both as nitwits completely made stupid by taking Army dogma too seriously, but his alienation isolates him from playing a meaningful role in the unit. Pulowski might hate Fowler on the same grounds he hates Hartz and Seacourt, but to his credit he recognizes under her Ms. Perfect exterior a darker, more cynical, better self awaiting nurture. Something about Pulowski’s insouciance appeals to Fowler, and soon they are not just hang-out buddies but clandestine lovers. Both recognize the oddness of the pairing; it’s not just for the sake of propriety they keep down-low the friends-with-benefits side of their relationship, it’s as much that, cowards at heart, they cringe at confronting the regiments’s amusement at discovering Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong and the most useless officer in the unit have paired up.

What Pulowski didn’t understand was the that when he said, “Go with the flow,” what she heard was, “Give in,” which happened to be her specialty, not his.  It was exactly what she was doing when, an hour later, she crunched her way up to the E Company TOC and manned her desk in the plywood-floored front room of a double-wide trailer, starting a twelve-hour shift.  The Army was all about giving in.  Every decision, every order, every mission, every battalion update, every PT session.  If your colonel ordered you to set up concrete T-walls inside the wire, you gave in–even if you thought that the walls could have been better used outside the wire.  The flip side was that you belonged to a structure you could trust, with rules that you didn’t have to just make up.  So the giving went both ways, and there was noting to distinguish one person from the next, nothing too embarrassing or too horrible to share.  So far, despite everything, it had pretty much worked this way.  The one exception had been her relationship with Pulowski, and she wouldn’t have had to keep that a secret if she’d been a guy.  Then she could’ve told people that she fucked Pulowski.  Boasted about it.  She could’ve said, Goddamn, I banged the living hell out of this lieutenant an hour ago, which was true.

Fowler and Pulowski are happy together, which counts for something, and good for each other, too–she needs to loosen up and he needs to get motivated–but The Good Lieutenant’s plot works out twists of fate, situation, event, and character that result in catastrophe for them and several others. Their cowardice is part of the issue—prone to overcompensation, both lieutenants act rashly in efforts to prove themselves. Concern for appearances also factors. Constant exposure to the judgment of troops, NCOs, and superiors can cause any lieutenant to wither rather than thrive, and for women the problem is especially acute, as their looks and romantic lives are not only subjects of extreme interest to men but fretful ones in their own minds, too. Terrell makes this point in a short passage describing a visit by Fowler to the gym:

Army of One was the motto that hung over the mirrors in the Fort Riley weight room, right next to the porny photographs of competitors for the Mr. and Mrs. Fort Riley competition flexing and oiled up in their bathing suits. Fowler was in her regulation ARMY T-shirt and black gym shorts wondering what the hell Pulowski was seeing when he praised her body in bed. After three solid weeks of paperwork and overseeing [predeployment] packing, she looked like an Army of about fifteen. Her shorts felt a size too small and the small bung of soft flesh that drooped over the waistband was visible when she kept her shirt tucked in (as regulations required), giving her the profile of a deflated gray balloon, so she strove to keep her eyes on SportsCenter as much as possible instead.

That’s harsh, bringing up many touchy issues about the male gaze and female body issues, and it’s not certain that Terrell’s own authorial gaze doesn’t reinstantiate what it purports to dramatize and critique (nor am I completely innocent in this regard). To tread lightly around these issues, it’s not just women officers but male officers sans 20-inch arms and flat bellies who can relate. The point is Fowler’s realization that, for an officer, looking good is as important as being good and that, once more, she is falling short of the standard. The novel’s title is ironic, but in truth Fowler is far from a bad officer. Her junior enlisted soldiers, for example, seem to like her just fine, and her relations with her superior officers run the usual gamut from terrifying to supportive. Hartz and Seacourt, being fools and thus dismissible, really aren’t the problem in any case.

It’s the disapproval of hardcore male lifers in the unit that makes things complicated for Fowler and where Terrell locates most precisely the difficulty of being a “good lieutenant,” especially when the lieutenant is a woman. Fowler’s platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Beale, an infantry company commander named Captain Masterson, and a Headquarters officer named Major McKutcheon, all Alpha-male hard-asses who reduce every problem and solution to their most brutal dimensions, dominate Fowler’s thoughts and make her keenly conscious of her shortcomings. She bungles even the easiest conversations with them, emitting flurries of passive-aggressive sparks they register as either disrespect or attempts at sucking up. In turn, they just ride her shit at every opportunity, not in a teasing, helpful way but to drive home the point that she is screwed-up and they are offended by her. They don’t taunt her sexually (though one can imagine how they talk about her behind her back), but it’s clear they are assholes who associate any and all of Fowler’s shortcomings with her gender. And what gives them the right to judge so harshly? Their willingness to brave danger and fight are not issues, but otherwise they make bad decision after bad decision, only to escape culpability by embodying and performing the tough-guy masculinity the military values most. From this perspective, they are exemplars of the toxic patriarchy that makes the military intolerable for many women. Classic examples of how hegemonic thinking perpetuates itself, they are crude men who insist their crudeness is what makes them great soldiers, and they justify their crudeness by flaunting their military savvy and warfighting prowess–as if there necessarily had to be a correlation and there were no other possibilities and if you didn’t agree you were in denial.

But Fowler, and Terrell, too, I believe, are not so sure it’s as simple as that. Beneath the insults, rudeness, and insubordination, the men collectively—Pulowski, also–pressure Fowler to understand she needs to drop her idealism, naivety, and basic dishonesty to be a more effective leader of soldiers in combat—or, at least, of soldiers like Beale, Masterson, and McKutcheon. Not to let them off the hook, but the best that could be said of them is that they want Fowler to be tougher, more decisive, less afraid to break a few rules, to speak more freely and be less guarded, be more dependably “one of them.” As the events of the novel play out, it’s hard to say they are entirely wrong, as the ending–or, rather, the beginning–seems to leave Fowler much sadder but also much wiser and toughened because of the death blows dealt soldiers under her leadership. Lieutenants learning the hard way is the stuff of many war tales, as in Tim O’Brien’s classic “The Things They Carried,” but The Good Lieutenant excels by portraying in detail and complexity what it’s like when the problems are compounded by gender. Now that we know Lieutenant Fowler’s backstory, we are left wondering what she makes of her life going forward.

Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016.


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