Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

Stephen Markley’s Ohio: What the MacDougal is Wrong With the Buckeye State?

February 23, 2019

Dan schooled him: “Uh, Lebron James? The Black Keys, Chrissie Hynde, Steven Spielberg? John Brown spent his formative years in Ohio.”

“Christ, don’t get you started on Ohio. You’re a fucking walking Wikipedia entry.”

“Johnny Appleseed. Ever heard of him? Ohian.”

So goes a conversation between two soldiers deployed to FOB Langman in Afghanistan portrayed in Stephen Markley’s 2018 novel Ohio. As a native Ohian myself (born in Athens), the snatch of dialogue piqued my interest, among many things in Markley’s excellent novel that intrigued me, for its description of the role the Buckeye State plays in what academics call “the cultural imaginary.” Ohio seems to be an appealing place for examination of such things these days, as Ohio-the-novel joins Nico Walker’s novel Cherry (set in Cleveland) and Hugh Martin’s poetry volume In Country as recent imaginative works dissecting the ties between Midwestern political and economic malaise and the twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s not forget either a recent spate of books about Ohio’s most famous warrior-son Ulysses S. Grant, the drift of which seeks to recoup respect for Grant’s military, political, and literary achievements as an antidote not just to Robert E. Lee idolatry but in marked counterpoint to our current Commander-in-Chief. To gather it all together, these works seem to address two common concerns: What’s the matter with Ohio, and what, if anything, can Ohio, at its best, offer the nation?

Markley’s Ohio makes an especially apt companion piece to Walker’s Cherry, as reviewers such as Christian Lorentzen and Nathan S. Webster have noted. Both novels feature young Ohio men of no particular means or ambition who join the military, fight overseas, and return (or, at least some of them return) to Ohio locales defined by few economic prospects and rampant drug use-and-abuse. Stylistically, the novels couldn’t be more different; where Cherry exudes a terse, minimalist ethos uninterested in literary flourishes, narrative trickery, or grandiloquent pontification, Ohio revels in novelistic excess, as if Cherry had been given a makeover by Ben Fountain (the two works exemplify “the raw” and “the cooked” war-and-mil writing poles I stake out in this blog post). The two novels differ in their basic regard for the military, too. In Cherry, the narrator, based on Walker himself, is contemptuous of the Army he joins, finding little value in its ideals, missions, and methods, or in the people with whom he serves. Markley, not a veteran, portrays two characters, one, Rick Brinklan, who joins the Marines and one, Dan Eaton, who joins the Army, differently. Each, within the range of possibilities offered to them and their peers in the fictional small town of New Canaan, embodies honor and good sense, and the military, whatever its shortcomings, is more generative of human commonweal than anything available back home. Not perfect, mind you—Rick is killed in Iraq and Dan loses an eye in the process of committing a war-crime in Afghanistan—but better by far than the failed state and blighted social microcosm from which the two men use the military to escape. In the exploration of this irony lies Ohio’s contribution to interminable debates about “the civil-military divide” and “thanking soldiers for their service.”

For starters, Ohio suggests that the 9/11 attacks accelerated the polarization of America into two political-ideological camps whose formation blasted any sense of shared American ideals and endeavor, here suggested in a divide that separates Rick Brinklan and his childhood friend Bill Ashcraft:

Then two planes hit the World Trade Center towers, one hit the Pentagon, and a final one dug a crater in a Pennsylvania field, and almost that same day, he felt a divergence occur between them. Bill observed the flag-waving, the brainless nationalism, the invocation of military might as a panacea for sorrow, and it felt to him like a bad movie, a gloss of convenient worship for shared bloodletting. Rick got into it. Really into it….

To be fair, the ideas in this passage are expressed through the wonders of free indirect discourse as those of Bill’s, so they may not precisely be Markley’s, but they don’t seem too far off, either. That 9/11 served to divide the nation, not unite it, is linked to a longer-term economic deterioration precipitated primarily by greedy charlatans who grew rich while skillfully escaping blame for the catastrophic damage they inflicted on the Midwest:

Ohio hadn’t gone throught the same real estate boom as the Sun Belt, but the vultures had circled the carcasses of dying industrial towns—Dayton, Toledo, Mansfield, Youngstown, Akron—peddling home equity loans and refinancing… The foreclosures began to crop up and then turn into fields of fast-moving weeds, reducing whole neighborhoods to abandoned husks or drug pens. Ameriquest, Countrywide, CitiFinancial—all those devious motherfuckers watching the state’s job losses, plant closings, its struggles, its heartache, and figuring out a way to make a buck on people’s desperation. Every city or town in the state had big gangrenous swaths that looked like New Canaan, the same cancer-patient-looking strip mall geography with brightly lit outposts hawking variations on usurious consumer credit.

Helpless in the face of such exploitation, or clueless about its true nature, the dazed denizens of Midwest wastelands lack the wherewithal to save themselves. One of the characters in Ohio notes that a factory abandoned some thirty years past still dominates downtown New Canaan like a wrecked cathedral, which the residents don’t seem to mind, or notice, and perhaps even like, oblivious that they might be expected to muster some sort of collective agency to revitalize or remove it.

In the years following 9/11, the nation’s actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figure almost irrelevantly in the lives of New Canaan’s residents, even as quite a few of the town’s sons and daughters go off to fight in them. The real after-effect of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror is the home-front growth of frenzied xenophobia about the danger posed by brown-skinned Muslim immigrants to the warp-and-woof of American and Ohioan life. Almost to a man, and even more so among the young than among the silver-haired Fox News-watchers, the male residents of New Canaan are driven to rhetorical apoplexy and actual violence by their sense that someone—namely Democrats and liberals—has allowed the very people the nation is fighting to infiltrate the nation’s ranks and threaten its character. In the mostly-white New Canaan, old-school black-white tension exists, but in almost diluted, benign form compared to the venomous hatred now directed toward non-Christian immigrants by young white men without education, their sputtering rage and impotence in the face of demographic change and diversity exacerbated by excessive drinking and drug use.

Whether all of this is true or not, or rings true or not, probably depends on where you lie on the Red-Blue spectrum. Ohio’s Amazon reviews suggest as much. There’s lots of 5-star ratings, but many 1-star reviews too, the tenor of which suggest that Ohio is a liberal hit-job launched from the elitist coasts. The issue is complicated by Markley’s portrait of characters with liberal, progressive, and radical politics and world-views. By-and-large they are described as possessed by their own form of self-hatred, one generated by internalizing the idea that to be out of step with the New Canaan mainstream is an act of self-marginalization born not of superior intelligence but of character perversity equal to or greater than the irrationalism of the xenophobes. They hate themselves, and thus are neither liked nor trusted by their more conservative peers, who find them deeply inauthentic and not credible:

What an important lesson for every young person to learn: If you defy the collective psychosis of nationalism, of imperial war, you will pay for it. And the people in your community, your home, who you thought knew and loved you, will be the ones to collect the debt.

In that space between deplorable provincial conservatives and enfeebled liberal exiles Markley situates Rick and Dan. If we ascribe a liberal politics to Markley, as do many of his Amazon reviewers, then one of the conundrums he tries to reconcile in Ohio is the irony that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as stupid and wasteful as they are, serve as venues for redemption of a modern America that is equally as stupid and has squandered its riches and its virtues. Rick’s no goody-goody, but as a former high school football star he possesses a Pat Tillman-like stalwartness that commands respect. Dan’s more ordinary, but his essential decency and kindness is recognized by everyone. Military service doesn’t inculcate in them a love of force, guns, and hyper-aggressive masculinity—the men who don’t serve are far more infected by these traits—but rather reinforces an inherent understanding of how an individual contributes responsibly to a social collective. Unfortunately, Rick’s and Dan’s potential is blighted by the military and war that also nourishes them—Rick by death and Dan by disability, guilt, and shame for the war-crime he is horrified to have committed—so not only do they ultimately not thrive in the military but they are unable to return to New Canaan and live out long lives as grown men contributing to the civic polity.

The implications of that last point are too dismal to contemplate, so let’s end with brief consideration of a capsule portrait of a soldier named Greg Coyle with whom Dan serves in Iraq. In my last post on Cherry, I praised Nico Walker’s description of a soldier named Jimenez, who is fated to be killed in combat. An emerging truism of war-writing is that any minor character described with any love and attention-to-detail will soon be vanquished and vanished from the story, but be that as it may, such capsule portraits are often among the most memorable passages in the works that contain them. Here’s an example of such an unwitting obituary from Ohio:

When they stood for inspections, Dan, like everyone, would get ripped, maybe because he’d stored his compression bandages in the wrong place or always tried to get away with not wearing the side plates of his body armor (those heavy, awkward five-by-five bastards). Greg Coyle, no matter how goofy he was, never got ripped, was always on point. Coyle, who referred to everything as a “MacDougal.” A bore snake, pliers, a target at the range, military-age males, MREs, ops, battalion—they were all just MacDougals to him. To the dismay of the whole company, within weeks of their deployment everyone was saying it.

“We’re getting those up-armored MacDougals next month.”

“Those powdered MacDougals—goddamn! Better than Mom’s homemade MacDougal.”

“That other MacDougal was getting rocked by IEMacDougals.”

They landed in Iraq in 2006, when the country was no joke, but that joke worked right through rocket attacks and EFPs.

The second thing Dan did after he got out and visited Rudy in the hospital was attend Bren Della Terza’s wedding in Austin, Texas. A lot of his friends from Iraq were there, guys he hadn’t seen in a while because they’d gotten out after two tours. Badamier, Lieutenant Holt, Cleary, Wong, Doc Laymon, Drake in his wheelchair, “Other James” Streiss, now with two robot hands. They of course got drunk and began referring to everything as a “MacDougal,” annoying the hell out of those piqued Texas bridesmaids. Decent, churchgoing women who had never seen soldiers cut loose. How hilariously stupid they could be. In his buzz, Dan found himself wishing to return to 2006, to be back on patrol with his friends.

Stephen Markley, Ohio. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Red and Blue: The Death of Jimenez

February 2, 2019

A red war novel and a blue one side-by-side on the shelves.

 

The battle roster number was EAJ-0888, and we were trying to think of who that was. We knew it was a guy from First Platoon because Staff Sergeant White had called it in. We knew it wasn’t Specialist Jackson, First Platoon’s medic, since line medics weren’t attached to Bravo from HHC and if the dead guy were Jackson the battle roster number would have started with HHC and not E. The first initial A wasn’t much help was we weren’t in the habit of calling one another by our first name. It took us the better part of ten minutes to come up with a guy from Third Platoon whose last name started with the letter J.

Private Jimenez.

Brian Van Reet, in a recent speech given at the American Library in Paris titled “The Red and the Blue: Writing War in a Divided America,” proposes that the contemporary war-writing landscape reflects the geo-political realities of the Age of Trump. Expanding on ideas suggested to him by veteran-writer Brian Castner, Van Reet argues that there are “red” war books that appeal to conservative, Red-State readers and “blue” war books popular among liberal Blue-State readers. Red war books, in this dichotomy, unproblematically extoll fighting-and-killing prowess and patriotic fervor as virtues, while blue war books ambivalently brood about these qualities. Blue books are marked by literary aspirations, while red books play for, and often receive, mass approval.

We cleared houses like we normally did when these things happened. It had been just a klick away, south of us, past the bend in the road, down a little past OP1, so we didn’t need to go anywhere. And with nothing to the west but a short field and the river, we turned east off the road and went about it.

As examples of red war books, Van Reet names American Sniper, Lone Survivor, No Easy Day, and “kill memoirs” (a phrase Van Reet coined) such as Dillard Johnson’s Carnivore. As examples of blue books, Van Reet names fiction such as Redeployment, The Yellow Birds, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and journalism such as Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War and Sebastian Junger’s War.

A blind retard was chained to a palm tree in front of the first house we came to. An old woman, presumably the retard’s mother, stood near the gate of the courtyard, and some of us filed in. There were four rooms around the courtyard so we split off to see about each one and I kicked a door in and went into an unlit room. The room was empty except for a haji lying on the floor with his eyes closed. I said, “Get the fuck up, motherfucker.”

But he didn’t move.

I moved closer to him, rifle trained down on him. “GET THE FUCK UP, MOTHERFUCKER.”

He opened one eye and looked at me, stayed unmoved, closed the eye. So I had my mind made up to kick him in the face. I didn’t go around kicking hajis in the face for no reason and I didn’t know anyone who did, but Jimenez was dead and I was going to kick the haji in the face. I brought the kick as hard as I could, aiming center mass. But I stopped halfway to connecting. It was all I could do to stay on the one foot and not fall on my ass. The haji got up and stretched and he shuffled out of the room. I can’t remember when it had occurred to me that maybe he was also retarded. I unfucked myself and went outside to see where the haji had gone. He was heading off into the fields, looking up into the sun. Nobody touched him.

Breaking down binary distinctions is always possible and tempting, but that Van Reet is basically correct, there can be no doubt. Beyond the evidence he provides, one can point to the fact that President Obama several times praised Phil Klay’s Redeployment. It’s impossible to imagine President Trump reading Redeployment, but if he did, it’s easy to think that he would hate it and Tweet that if it didn’t demonstrate why America should never have gone to war in Iraq (he wouldn’t be so wrong about that), then it was proof positive that the American military was full of losers and sissies who didn’t have the balls to crush their enemies.

Jimenez was a cherry. He was one of the replacements who had come to the company after First Platoon lost the four guys killed out on Route Polk. He hadn’t been around two months and he was dead. It was unlucky.

Sometimes the dead guy was really an asshole, or you could make the case that he was. Not so with Jimenez. For all intents and purposes, Jimenez was a saint. That’s why he stuck out like a sore thumb in an infantry company.

The thing is your average infantryman is no worse than your garden-variety sonofabitch. But he talks in dick jokes and aspires to murder and it doesn’t come off as a very saintly mode of being. Yet Jimenez was a saint. It wasn’t like he was soft or anything like that; he was a tough kid. He’d only just turned 19 but he was strong with a deep chest and the kind of unbreakable wrists one gets from working with his hands. And he’d work. The sergeants liked him for that. But he was so goddamn nice that he drove people crazy sometimes. Like he’d play poker with the poker players and he’d play bad hands. Dealt a queen-four off-suited, he was liable to call two preflop raises and hit a boat on the river. And when people got mad at him for playing garbage he’d apologize and try to give them back their chips. But it didn’t work like that.

The last time I saw Jimenez was about eight hours before Haji killed him. He’d been boxing Staff Sergeant Castro in the weight room, sparring, and Castro had popped him on the nose pretty good so his nose was bleeding—not broken or anything, just bleeding. And Castro told him to go see a medic and Jimenez did what he was told and when he came around looking for a medic I gave him a hard time. I said, “What the fuck are you coming to me about a bloody fucking nose for, cherry?”

And he didn’t say anything. He just smiled, all awkward, like he was embarrassed for me.

I said, “C’mon, cherry. I’m tired. Please don’t come to me with dumb shit, okay? I’m really fucking tired, you know?”

In the course of his speech, Van Reet includes Nico Walker’s Cherry as an example par excellence of a “blue” literary war novel. That’s interesting to me, because Cherry presents itself as a very raw, un-doctored, and un-mannered account by a junior-enlisted soldier who unapologetically describes life-in-the-ranks on deployment with brutal honesty. If I were to point to a war novel released last year that demonstrated serious literary chops and aspirations, it would be Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, not Cherry. Still, that Walker’s author-narrator persona is a bit of a façade is revealed by the narrator’s admission that post-deployment, even while in the grips of serious heroin addiction, he was submitting poems to the New Yorker, and corroborated in the Acknowledgements where Walker reveals that he rewrote Cherry endlessly under the tutelage of literary publishing pros. So, a little like American Sniper, which was ghost-written by a seasoned novelist, Cherry manages to convey authenticity despite all the evidence that it was highly stylized and worked-over by a young man with serious literary ambitions and a team of helpmates.

He went out with a fire team in the morning. They set up a TCP on Route Martha. They’d gone out when it was still dark and they hadn’t had a good look at the spot where they were set up and they didn’t know Haji had laid a one-five-five round underneath the road there. The road was just a paved berm and it was easy to mine. And the Haj was watching them. He saw Jimenez stand on the spot he had mined.

I heard Koljo talk about it. It was later in that same day. He was telling some joes what it had been like. He said, “It looked like something out of a horror movie.”

The one-five-five round took off both Jimenez’s legs and severed one of his arms almost completely. But he was still awake and he knew what was happening. He was screaming. The fire team traded shots with two fucking murderers, but the murderers got away, north through a palm grove. The fire team couldn’t go after them because they couldn’t leave Jimenez there by himself.

Be that as it may, many passages in Cherry are strikingly vivid and moving, to include the one I’ve been excerpting, which come from Chapter 33. Though the chapter is unnamed in the book, it might be called “The Death of Jimenez.” For me, it’s up there, if not quite better than, the portrait of the death of Snowden at the end of Catch-22, which sets the bar high for depiction of the death of American soldiers in combat. Read Chapter 33, read Cherry entire, and judge for yourself.

Nico Walker, Cherry. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Nico Walker’s Cherry: First Thoughts and Questions

December 29, 2018

Is Nico Walker’s novel Cherry about war in Iraq or heroin addiction? Or is it about both? If so, what connects Iraq and heroin in the life and mind of its unnamed but clearly autobiographical first-person narrator? The first half of Cherry recounts the narrator’s life through deployment to Iraq as a medic in a combat unit in ways similar to Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey: purposeless young white male junior-enlisted soldiers, mostly unimpressed by anything the military has to offer, confront horrifying events that overwhelm their defense-mechanisms and occasion their dissolution into drugs, drink, violence, and anti-sociality. But the formula doesn’t quite work for Cherry. The second-half of the novel, in which the narrator describes his heroin addiction and the criminal capers he undertakes to finance it, refracted through his love for his fellow addict and soulmate Emily, seems thematically and tonally disconnected from the war-and-military sections. I came away from the novel thinking that military deployment mostly bored the narrator, and not much happened overseas that he connects to the verve of his drug-addicted, crime-ridden romance with Emily except that for a while it paid the post-war bills for love and debauchery:

There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin. Emily and I were living together. The days were bright. You didn’t worry about jobs because there weren’t any. But you could go to school so you could get FAFSA, you could get student loans and Pell Grants. And if you were getting G.I. Bill, that’d cover your tuition; then you didn’t need your FAFSA for school and you could go and buy dope with it instead. Which was all you really wanted. You could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars. You could grow high-class weed in your basement and pay the rent like that. Of course the future looked bad—you went into debt, you got sick all the time, you couldn’t shit, everyone you met was a fucker, your new friends would eat the eyes out of your head for a spoon or twenty dollars, your old friends stayed away—but you could do more heroin and that would usually serve to settle you down, when you were going on 25, back when you could still fake it, and there was nothing better than to be young and on heroin.

For the narrator, heroin addiction is the logical culmination of love of getting high. He was plenty attracted to drugs before he joined the Army and deployment seems a soon-forgotten side-episode in what he considers the real story of his life. The military didn’t reform or save him, but it wasn’t his ruin, either.

Heroin addiction and overdose have wrecked my extended family’s happiness far more than anything associated with my blood-soaked and death-tinged deployment to Afghanistan, too, so I may be more receptive to Cherry‘s druggie aspects than most. But Cherry’s marketing material—book-jacket blurbs and Amazon testimonials—seems to agree with me that the novel is more junkie-romance than war-story.  Lea Carpenter writes on the dust-jacket, for example, “Cherry is the debut novel America needs now, a letter from the front line of opioid addiction and, almost subliminally, a war story.” That “almost subliminally” is intriguing. Does Carpenter mean that Walker himself doesn’t quite understand how war and drugs are mixed up in his mind and life, or is she suggesting that the real war central to the American 21st-century is not the “war on terror” but the “war on drugs”? The great article or book connecting the two wars is there for the writing.

What’s without question is Cherry’s striking critical and public reception upon release. At last check, Cherry was far-outpacing other 2018 war-fiction releases on Amazon’s best-seller list. Advance readers and reviewers have been lavish in their praise; the quote from Lea Carpenter above is restrained compared to its dust-jacket companions:

“Someone once said there are two things worth writing about, love and death. Nico Walker may know more about these two subjects than 99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.”

“After reading this, you’ll say only one thing: Nico Walker is one of the best writers alive.”

“a powerful book that declares the arrival of a real writer who has made art out of anguish.”

Far more measured is a remarkable blogpost by Spoils author Brian Van Reet, a rumination on Walker and Cherry described by Fire and Forget author Jacob Siegel on Twitter as “one of the only essential pieces of cultural criticism that I read this year.” Van Reet nicely captures the dilemma of judging Cherry work-and-author fairly:

When I first heard of him [Walker] and his autobiographical novel, I confess my reaction to it was not-so-gentle bemusement. Oh great, I thought. An Iraq-veteran-junkie-bank-robber novelist. We have truly jumped the shark in this genre. Blame our sensationalistic media culture, which often functions to seek out and reward the very worst people. I feared the rest of us, in the wake of his book, would now have to deal with its confirmation of a damaging stereotype about this generation of veterans: that we are no more than mindless thugs who, by virtue of our participation in a criminal war, are criminals at heart, if not by the letter of the law.

On top of that, it seemed to me a dizzying moral abdication that so many literary journalists and book critics had taken it upon themselves to celebrate work by a convicted violent criminal from an affluent background, in a cultural moment when any number of male authors and editors have been lately accused of inappropriate behavior, which may not rise to the level of criminal offense, but which is nevertheless deemed toxic enough to warrant the ruination of their careers. Meanwhile, some of the same institutions and people most responsible for tearing down these “shitty men” in literature were now elevating Walker to literary celebrity, his career launched precisely because of his outrageously bad behavior.

So, another question: Is Cherry the apotheosis of modern war fiction, the book critics and readers have been waiting for all along? Or, is it the nadir, the repudiation of literary possibilities suggested by veteran authors such as Kevin Powers, David Abrams, Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Van Reet himself? To be fair to Van Reet, following his skeptical start-point, he works toward recognition of Cherry’s appeal and achievement: the startlingly visceral illusion of clarity and honesty with which Walker presents the narrator, his tour in Iraq, and his love for heroin. In describing both hair-raising (and sometimes comic) scenes of combat and junkie degeneracy, Walker’s understated language mostly avoids sensationalist and melodramatic excess. The narrator doesn’t waste time in self-reflection or analytical explanation, which is a virtue in terms of sprightly story-telling, but also a weakness for readers curious to learn what Walker knows about “love and death” better than “99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.” More decidedly a plus, there’s a thankful lack of either apologizing or humble-bragging in the narrator’s account of his walks-on-the-wild-side, and even better is that Walker avoids the trap of stale media and public health buzz-words to describe his drug-taking: there’s very little mention of “abuse,” “addiction,” “rehabilitation,” “opioid epidemic,” “monkey on my back,” “overdose,” “clean,” “OD,” “drug fiend,” “junkie,” “addict,” or “war on drugs.”

The narrator’s prose voice seems intuitive and unrehearsed, though by Walker’s own report in the Acknowledgements the finished book is the product of many rewrites and much tough-tutelage administered by his publishing team. In other words, he worked harder on Cherry than anything he ever worked on in his life, save for scoring heroin and (perhaps, hopefully) making Emily happy, and the unadorned feel of natural genius is the product of extensive editorial curation. Whatever, Walker’s self-presentation is Cherry‘s strength; in the Acknowledgments Walker relates that he knew Cherry was getting good when one of his editors tells him that after a few dozen revisions the main character was no longer just an “asshole,” but an asshole “she kind of liked.” More Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries than Colby Buzzell’s My War, more Sid and Nancy than American Sniper, Cherry awaits your reading.

Also recommended:  Jenny Pacanowki’s “Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD.”

Nico Walker, Cherry. Knopf, 2018.

Elliot Ackerman’s Waiting for Eden

December 11, 2018

Elliot Ackerman, as much as any contemporary veteran, has turned himself into a working professional author. With three novels in three years published by prestigious publishing houses and a collection of journalism and essays on the way, he’s making the rest of the veteran war-writing crew look a little sluggish, as if they were struggling to generate sellable story ideas. Time will tell who is the Tim O’Brien of the current cohort of war authors, but Ackerman is well on his way to being its Robert Olen Butler: the author of a steady stream of distinctive war-related fiction; books that fuse contemporary concerns with literary antecedents and private vision, that may be more loss-leaders than cash-cows for their publishers, but cumulatively adding up to a successful career and a laudable body-of-work.

Ackerman’s latest work-of-fiction, Waiting for Eden, is novella-length, so not as tight and focused as a short-story nor as expansive as a novel. Shorting commentary, context and portrayal of social milieu while still taking time to reveal its secrets and generate impact, Waiting for Eden aims for evocativeness rather than detail as it presents the story of a grievously wounded and near-comatose Iraq veteran lying in a San Antonio hospital bed years after his wounding. The veteran, Eden Malcolm by name, is kept alive by the miracles of medicine and the refusal of his wife Mary to let doctors pull the plug on him. Eden in this regard resembles the protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s acclaimed novel Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1938, about a World War I quadruple-amputee trapped alone with his thoughts inside his mangled body. Waiting for Eden is narrated by Eden’s Marine Corps buddy, an unnamed friend killed in the same IED explosion that injures Eden and who now tells the story from beyond the grave. The parallels between Waiting for Eden and Johnny Got His Gun have been noted by reviewers, but no one, to my knowledge, has noticed the similarity of the narration to Larry Heinemann’s 1987 National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which is related by the collective voice of the dead soldiers killed in a big battle that leaves the title character physically disabled and mentally anguished.

With this intriguing buddy-pair–neither narrator nor protagonist fully there in the real world to tell his story and interact with living people–demanding attention at first read, reviews of Waiting for Eden have tended to explain it in terms of its exploration of war disability, soldierly camaraderie, survivor guilt, and national responsibility for war-wounded. The novella also asks readers to consider the plight of the families of wounded veterans and the ethical-medical-legal quandaries of extending life by technology and pharmaceuticals. To the extent that Waiting for Eden actually does explore these weighty themes, it’s interesting to speculate how other contemporary war-writers might have handled them:

-Phil Klay might philosophize about the ethics of life preservation and the oaths soldiers and families make to each other unto eternity.
-Matt Gallagher might infuse the story with self-deprecating humor and existential bemusement.
-Roy Scranton might critique sanctimonious dwelling on wounded American soldiers and the feebleness of “thanking soldiers for their service.”
-Will Mackin might have a field day describing the porous boundaries between life and death.

This fanciful mind-game actually has a point: Ackerman, or his narrator, is not especially interested in the cosmic dynamics of the life-death continuum nor the politics of caring for wounded veterans. The reviews that focus on these matters have missed what the narrator clearly states in the opening lines of Waiting for Eden:

I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know if you will. You’ve got to wonder if in the end you’d make the same choice, circumstances being similar, or even the same, God help you.

In other words, the focus is on Mary, a problematic care-taker of her disabled husband and object of fascination and desire for the narrator, and it’s also a referendum on the narrator’s own thoughts and actions. It’s too soon after publication to reveal key plot details and discuss the story’s finale, but events before Iraq and after her husband’s wounding reveal that Mary’s choices and motives in regard to Eden are not exactly beyond reproach, nor are the narrator’s. Without giving away too much, let’s just say marital dissatisfaction and sexual impotence are issues, and matters of infidelity and paternity also come into play. The narrator’s intent (and I am assuming Ackerman’s too) is to save Mary and himself from harsh judgment, which is cool by me. The issue is complicated, however, by the narrator’s unreliability, his failure to clarify important plot points, and most of all, his failure or inability to offer fulsome portraits of Mary’s thoughts, though he is quite omniscient about other aspects of the story he tells. The problem is compounded by the fact that the narrator is a disembodied voice, not a ghost who interjects himself in the lives of the living, and Mary isolates herself from family, hometown, friends, fellow military spouses, medical care-givers, and even her daughter, which makes it hard to evaluate them in the context of social relations. Readers who feel they don’t have enough information to properly “understand” Mary and “what she did” might be left in a perplexed state by Waiting for Eden, which I believe is by design. Whether they approve of Mary and the narrator or not, readers will certainly be eager to discuss their ideas with other readers, which any author should welcome, and which I would certainly enjoy doing over a beer or two, if anyone’s interested.

To situate Ackerman once more among his war-writer peers, Waiting for Eden explores the precincts of military marriage also patrolled by Siobhan Fallon. Fallon’s latest novel, The Confusion of Languages, features a character much like Waiting for Eden’s narrator–in Fallon’s case, a self-important male Army officer eager to preserve plausible deniability that he’s not your average, ordinary horndog with the hots for his best friend’s wife. Fallon’s best stories—“Leave,” “The Last Stand,” and “Tips for a Smooth Transition”—feature military couples in scenes set not just in any domestic space, but in the “rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” as Hamlet puts it, where the jealousy, resentment, and pay-back meters can ping off the charts. A great line from the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof spoken by the family matriarch, Big Mama, played by Judith Anderson, helps define the parameters of Waiting for Eden‘s odd ménage-à-trois and the centrality of the hospital bed where all the action happens, or doesn’t happen. While sitting on her daughter-in-law’s bed, Big Mama barks at Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie-the-Cat character, who is married to Big Mama’s dysfunctional son Brick, played by Paul Newman: “You’re childless and my son drinks, and the problem starts right here,” at the same time slapping the unhappy couple’s mattress. Brick, it turns out, pines for his childhood friend Skipper, who has committed suicide after Maggie-the-Cat attempts to seduce him in order to ruin his friendship with Brick, which she resents.

Complicated, yes, but something of the same is at work in Waiting for Eden. Eden’s hospital bed, haunted by the narrator’s vigil, serves, if we can borrow from William Blake, as “the Marriage hearse” for Eden and Mary’s ruptured dream of conjugal bliss and fruitful procreation. The romantic triangle formed by Mary, Eden, and the narrator also nicely illustrates literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of “homosociality”: one deal-e-o going down is the psychodrama of the two men, locked in passive-aggressive one-upmanship manifested as desire for Mary, which is quickly transformed into dependence on her, and not just need for her body and approval, but for very existence. In a startlingly apt description, Benjamin Busch writes of Fallon’s “worried imagination,” and in many of her stories it’s not wives worrying about their husband’s fidelity that’s the issue, but wives worrying about their own potential for betrayal, along with the evident ability they have to emotionally crush their naïve, oblivious, trusting, and child-like husbands, should they choose to. This sentiment also informs Waiting for Eden. Ackerman’s achievement is tracing the narrator’s growing respect for Mary’s increasing consciousness of the power she holds over the men in her life, and their death, while moving the reader to understand and respect her growing awareness, too.

That’s an enigmatic, perhaps not entirely helpful way to close this invitation to read Waiting for Eden, which I urge you to accept nonetheless. The book ends (as does Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust, by the by) by quoting the final lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which describe Adam and Eve, sadder but wiser after Eve eats the apple, leaving the Garden of Eden on “thir solitarie way.” It’s a stirring image, but its exact relation to the story Waiting for Eden tells is one more thing we can talk about when we have that beer together.

Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

War Fiction, Poetry, and Film 2018

December 1, 2018

USASOC #7, by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

2018 was a bounteous year for new fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Titles by veterans Elliot Ackerman, Will Mackin, Ray McPadden, and Nico Walker burst with interest and talent, and works by non-veterans Raymond Hutson, Kathleen McInnis, Hilary Plum, Stephen Markley, and Ahmed Saadawi offer as much or more.

2018 poetry titles include new work by Army vet Hugh Martin, Marine spouse Lisa Stice, and Army spouse Abby Murray. As far as I have noted, the only major movie about war in Iraq or Afghanistan to have appeared in 2018 is 12 Strong, about Special Forces in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, though Vice, about war architect Vice-President Dick Cheney, is set to hit theaters on Christmas.

What am I missing? Let me know and I’ll add it to the lists.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(2016).
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018)
Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018)
Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018)
Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018)
Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018)
Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018)
Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018)
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018)
Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011)
Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Abby E. Murray, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife (2012)
Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013)
Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013)
Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Chuck Rybak, War (2013)
David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014)
Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014)
Gerardo Mena (USMC), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers(2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015)
Philip Metres, Sand Opera (2015)
Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016)
Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016)
Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016)
Kim Garcia, Drone (2016)
Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016)
Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only)
Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017)
Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)
Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017)
Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018)
Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017)
Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017)
The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017)
12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018)

Toni Morrison’s Home: A Different War Story

October 2, 2018

WLA Poster

At the War, Literature & the Arts conference in Colorado last month I read a paper titled “The Black Aesthetics of War Trauma:  Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, and Contemporary War Fiction.”  In it, I compared Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, about a black Korean War veteran’s post-war ordeal, with Larry Heinemann’s 1987 Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, about a white veteran adrift after coming home. Here’s part of it:

Home unites Morrison’s interest in black veterans and her interest in personal healing and national coping strategies for dealing with trauma, almost as if she had deliberately taken characters, plot points, and narrative styles from Heinemann’s Paco’s Story and merged them with the ideas and ethos of her own 1987 novel Beloved.  Points on which Home and Paco’s Story resemble each other include:

-the plight of the war-torn-and-haunted veteran dramatized by means of a long journey, with many scenes set on public transportation or in diners and rooming houses.

-a heavy emphasis on survivor’s guilt, brought about by having outlived friends and comrades in combat.

-an even-more intense trigger involving sexual desire for a young Asian woman followed by actively taking the woman’s life or being complicit in murder.

-the interest in the ability of small-town America to accept and nourish returning veterans.

-the inadequacy of the medical, legal, and policing apparatuses, which effectively criminalize erratic behavior by veterans.

-the wise counsel of fellow veterans, especially elders, who are portrayed as the only ones who can connect with other veterans.

-a similarity in tone, particularly in the italicized interludes in Home, in which Frank Money cajoles and taunts the reader/writer in a bristling street/folk-idiom very much like that of used by Heinemann in Paco’s Story, which is narrated by the collective ghosts of Paco’s now-dead fellow soldiers.

Does it matter the stories resemble each other, and that Morrison composed her story after Heinemann and may have consciously drawn plot-and-style points from it?  I don’t think so, and more importantly, I don’t care; in fact, I’m glad it has happened….

I went on to suggest that Morrison is not just interested in Heinemann but the corpus of war-fiction published about the same time as Home and featuring psychologically distressed white veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan:

What Morrison has done is excavate the pre-history of the troubled, war-torn veteran and relocated it from the domain of white veterans of the contemporary era to that of black veterans in the 1950s, whose alienated wandering was more fraught than modern white veterans might imagine. Mindful that the Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War,” as well as being the first American war in which blacks fought in integrated front-line units, and also mindful that African-Americans fought and suffered casualties out of proportion to their population, Morrison uses Home to make a strong statement about the centrality of black Americans in the American history of war, as well as the American history of trauma.  In so doing, Home serves as a prism that refracts present-day understandings of war trauma through an historical race consciousness that challenges assumptions, adds detail, and expands context….

I continued by suggesting that in retelling the story of the psychologically distressed veteran from an African-American perspective, Morrison has not only related an overlooked chapter in American history, her book itself constitutes an historical event that might well be looked back on in the future as game-changing. I used the conference keynote speaker, African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, to explain:

As such, they reflect Suzan-Lori Parks’ formulation of a black theatrical aesthetics, in which she states, “Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theater, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to … locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.”

The same sentiment of “made history” is afoot in Home, I feel.  Home asserts that a whites-only story of return-from-war is at best a partial truth, true only so far as it goes.  Not only does it exclude black veterans, but its entire premise is built on and borrowed from one of the nation’s ur-trauma narratives:  500-years of racial oppression the result of which has forged an African-American population scarred physically, mentally, and emotionally, individually and collectively.

Finally, I considered what I call the “intriguingly upbeat ending” of Home:

But rather than imagining a downward trajectory for her war-torn veteran protagonist and an irredeemably debilitating social-political milieu Morrison in Home (as she does in Beloved) transcends the trap of victimhood by offering a more resilient version of the traumatized survivor.  Morrison suggests that for poor African-Americans in the Deep South in the 1950s, embracing family and community, not running from them, is a means for surviving poverty, racism, and the persistent squelching of individual dreams and opportunities.  Within that embrace, failings and sins can be forgiven and made secondary to the collective endeavor to maintain dignity and fellow-feeling.

Home thus stands as a counterpoint to the generic convention of the veteran psychologically-damaged by war on behalf of a nation that doesn’t know what to do with the victims it has created.  It’s not to blame white veteran-authors for writing works that don’t acknowledge the Africanist presence in the American history of war-trauma I speak of.  Instead, it is for alert readers and the authors of the future to understand the full range of possibilities and stakes.  One such reader and author, Jesse Goolsby, one of our hosts here at the conference and the author of an excellent post-war novel himself, reminds us:

            “There are blank pages in front of all of us.  If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.”

Home is a great example of the “different war story” Goolsby speaks of, not one that merely confirms or rebukes familiar tropes and themes, but offers a variation on them from the point-of-view of an author as perceptive and as uniquely marked by her life and times as is Morrison.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Liam Corley, Hilary Lithgow, and Lydia Wilkes, as well as to our moderator Gregory Laski.  Special thanks to the United States Air Force Academy and the Department of English and Fine Arts there for sponsoring the conference.  Reading  lots of Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, Jesse Goolsby, and Suzan-Lori Parks (as well as the other conference keynote speaker, Robert Olen Butler) over the summer has been a pleasure.  I previously wrote about Home here.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ quote can be found in an essay titled “Possession,” published in The America Play and Other Works (1995).

Jesse Goolsby’s quote can be found in an AWP Roundtable conversation published on the Sundress Publications website as “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War (2018).

 

Hilary Plum, Caleb Cage, Ahmed Saadawi

August 15, 2018

Three recent works of fiction suggest that war in Iraq was not so much an event or set of events, but a disease that infected its participants and ruined their lives. Hilary Plum’s Strawberry Fields is her follow-up to her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (which I review here) and her 2016 book of essays Watchfires (mentioned here). Like Plum’s previous two works, Strawberry Fields’ interest is the rancid state of American society and global geo-eco-politics, in which violence, fear, militarism, crime, natural and man-made disaster, and constant surveillance overwhelm optimism, good-nature, civility, and civic feeling. War in Iraq figures in each of the works, but mainly as a breeding ground for and a corollary manifestation of rot at home. In Strawberry Fields, five Iraq veterans are found murdered; the rest of the novel details a strange alliance between a journalist named Alice and a detective named Modigliani as they search for clues to the murder in war crimes committed by contractors to whom the soldiers were connected overseas. The story is related through the perspective of multiple characters in a non-linear manner, with contextual clues scant and little sense of plot or closure. Intermixed with the main storyline are other chapters depicting harrowing scenes of human, animal, and environmental vulnerability, set in places as diverse as New Orleans after Katrina, a refugee camp in an unnamed country, a neglected zoo, a field ruined by pesticides. The textual atmosphere is sometimes lyrical but mostly clotted and bristling, so Strawberry Fields is not an easy breeze for casual readers. If, however, you, as do I, might like a novel that doesn’t just describe our malevolent times but replicates their dizzying and dismaying profusion of bad news and hostile intentions, sans happy-face band-aids, then Strawberry Fields is for you.

Caleb Cage’s dedication to Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada, his book of nine linked short services about war in Iraq and before and afterwards in Nevada, is telling. Written “For Brooke” (I presume Cage’s wife), it goes: “you are the happy story you couldn’t find on these pages.” Brooke wasn’t wrong, for I don’t think I’ve read a work of fiction about Iraq or Afghanistan that is so relentlessly dour. The protagonists of the stories in Desert Memories—soldiers of different ranks in a Nevada National Guard infantry unit—just seem miserable. The war is hopeless, the chain-of-command are fools, Iraq and Iraqis are disgusting, the soldiers screw each other’s girls, the women in theater and back home are treacherous, and the relief from it all—alcohol—is a one-way fast-track to ruin at an early age. Something like the true voice of the disaffected junior enlisted soldier and junior officer emerges in full throttle over the course of Desert Mementos. Convinced of their own superior judgment and self-righteousness, the soldiers seethe as the increasing apprehension that they now hold in contempt the military they voluntarily joined gnaws at their self-respect. What they hoped would be a transformative experience has turned out to be joyless and purposeless and they suspect that they have been made worse, not better, by Army service. Silently blaming themselves for their predicament is intolerable, however, so begins endless bitching and acts of petty insubordination directed at a military they now loathe. For all that, Desert Mementos has many virtues, or maybe all that is its virtue, or at least its point. I’ll trust there are still a lot of highly-motivated, good-natured soldiers eager to do well out there, but there are those like the soldiers described in Desert Mementos, too, and the military has only itself to blame for it. As someone who has led a lot of vehicle “CONOPS,” I liked Cage’s depiction of them in “Ghost Patrol.” As someone who has pulled many guard-tower shifts, I appreciated Cage’s portrait of the same in “Desert Island.” As someone who knows all too well the inside of a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and built many a PowerPoint presentation (and written about them here), I loved “This Is Not Burning Man.” As someone who had a vexing professional relationship with a female embedded journalist, I could relate to “Proxy War.” As someone who has had some memorable experiences driving through Nevada, I thought “Tonopah Low” was right on-point. And as someone who was witness to the killing of a fellow truck crew-member, I’ll testify that a similar event described in “Soldier’s Cross” spoke to me hard and true.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad tells the story of a monster created out of human body parts that wreaks vengeance on Iraqis who are complicit in criminal activity—usually killing—directed against fellow Iraqis. The novel’s least interesting parts are those that give voice to the monster’s consciousness or attempt to explain it through authorial third-person description. Apparently, the modern-day Frankenstein represents a cosmic manifestation of the violence begat by violence, a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-expanding retribution for past sins and crimes, amplified by the collapse of humane civil society in Iraq as a result of first Saddam Hussein and then the American invasion. These portions of Frankenstein in Baghdad ring kind of strident and over-determined while emitting confusing signals whether they are serious or comically fanciful. Much more winning is the rest of the novel, which consists of accounts of everyday Iraqis—the 90% who wouldn’t think of killing anyone under any circumstances–whose lives consist of trying to survive the violence instigated by the ruthless, selfish, and bloody-minded among them. The leader of the advisor team I replaced in Afghanistan told me upon arrival that “Afghans are reasonable decision-makers, but they are worried everyday about two things that we are not: that they might be killed at any time, and that they have to ensure their family’s future welfare.” That insight seems to also be the animating force for the characters in Frankenstein in Baghdad, who must deal with the chaos that tyranny, war, and most-of-all poverty have beset upon them. Living by their wits and extremely aware of the precariousness of their lives, Saadawi’s Baghdadians demonstrate a resiliency, ingeniousness, and humanity that makes us far-softer, far-safer Americans look like rigid, selfish dullards. Their stories both heart-breaking and inspiring, Saadawi relates them in a way that, against all odds, seems light-hearted, jocular, even madcap. How Iraqi fiction about the war can be so zestful, while American fiction strikes such bummer notes, is one of the wonders of literature and mysteries of life.

Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields. Fence Books, 2018.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada Press, 2017.

Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Translated by Jonathan Wright. Penguin, 2018.


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