I’d Live in the Moment if I Could Handle It: A Review of Jesse Goolsby’s ‘I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them’

“There will never be any more heaven or hell than there is now,” reads the epigraph to Jesse Goolsby’s novel I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them, quoting Whitman’s Song of Myself. These are powerful words to kick off a novel that, like a flickering reel of film, showcases tiny moments in its characters’ lives while building a rumination about time that is much larger than its individual parts.

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Essentially a novel-in-stories, Goolsby’s book opens with three young men on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Wintric Ellis, closest to the heart of the novel, is a “true California hick” who joined the Army two weeks after high school graduation and left behind a beautiful and rather informally-devoted girlfriend, Kristen. (Kristen seems casual and unconcerned–she’s happy where she is, and if Wintric comes back, great– but her mettle will be tested in the novel, and her character proven through sheer endurance.)

Taking Wintric under their tough-love wing in Afghanistan are Big Dax–a slow-moving, somehow good-heartedly-apathetic guy –and family man Armando Torres, who was raised Mormon in Colorado and who’s arguably endured the most pre-wartime suffering, or at least the most dramatic pre-wartime suffering, of the three. His mother was badly injured in a car accident and, later, is dying of cancer; his father sets forest fires for fun, one of which ends in tragedy.

Dax and Torres have both been in-country a lot longer than Wintric, and they feel compelled to philosophize to their captive audience on all manner of topics ranging from the shifting nature of friend and foe; which recent major-league baseball players have used steroids; who might be waiting for them back home and who might not. While Wintric doesn’t necessarily appreciate their stream-of-consciousness insights, they help to fill the time, and they set the pace for Goolsby’s brand of free-flowing, no-holds-barred dialogue:

“Reality tells me it’s dangerous to believe that somebody’s waiting for you back home [says Dax]. Their lives are shit. We stay busy, keep our minds working. They get to worry and pretend they’re fine with us dodging bombs over here. And you know they have to act like they’re fine with it because if they don’t, if they actually speak their minds, they’re unpatriotic and bitches and everything else. You hate me for saying it. Fine.”

What’s intriguing to me is how at odds the characters’ dialogue is with the aim of Goolsby’s novel. His narrative authority has a broader plan of which his characters are authentically, believably, unaware. Their lives, Goolsby’s saying, are not shit, and every moment–no matter how dreadful or pleasant or dull–adds up to something meaningful. Walt Whitman’s profoundly empathetic, life-affirming vision runs strongly throughout even the bleakest pages of this novel.

We follow the three characters upon their returns home, and life takes them all different places. Dax is the biggest sleepwalker of the bunch, and when his life finally takes an upward turn, it may be too late. Being a father makes Torres heartbreakingly aware of his own shortcomings, his inability to connect with–even touch–the daughters he adores. Wintric gains insight through his struggles with sexual abuse and addiction, but this may not be enough to overcome such forces.

Where’s the turn? he wonders. The bottom? The point where things start getting better and always get better?

(Wintric’s thinking this while sitting at his son’s baseball game, in a scene that beautifully highlights the connection, and the distance, between members of a family. How intimately you can know someone, and not realize that they are sitting at your baseball game, filled with remorse because the first time they held you, as a newborn, they were high on Percocet. And how much you [I’m talking to you, Wintric!], can love someone, but sit at their baseball game thinking about yourself. And on and on.)

It’s Wintric’s wife Kristen who may be given the most insight of anyone in the novel. She’s able to look at Wintric with clear eyes. She knows he’s high when he phones from home, playing Call of Duty and asking will she bring him a beer. She knows he pops pills before they have sex. She is not a martyr, or at least not a spineless one. But she sees him caring for his son. She remembers swimming with him in the lake when they were eighteen and how he sent her one thing before he left from Afghanistan: his long hair. She still has it. She is sentimental but practical, her emotions always tempered and fair, and she, if no one else, can live in the moment without being wrecked by it.

This place is real [she thinks, visiting an redwood forest while newly into a pregnancy she may not keep]. She is here. Everything seems so slow around her, the scattered and patient dripping, the turning earth.

Life is hard for these characters — most of the time. Other times, they feel genuine happiness. They feel belonging. Such moments come in fits and starts. But none of these people have come from easy childhoods, and part of Goolsby’s thesis is that their lives would have been difficult with or without their time in the Army. Military service has crystallized some forms of pain — and, through shared experience and belonging, diffused others. But, as Whitman writes in his gorgeous poem “How Solemn as One By One,” whatever these people are was formed in them before, and during, and after war. There was a core personhood to them before their wartime experience– something affected by war but separate from it; a sort of soul fingerprint.

Goolsbyauthor Jesse Goolsby

The pain of life, I’d Walk seems to say, is that only a fraction of the time can we actually see what the moments of our lives are building. We resist and evade them at every opportunity because to look at them head-on is too much. Goolsby gathers his aching, wandering characters and does the looking for them, because most of the time they cannot. What he presents is life made into art, a statement about humanity of which Walt Whitman would have approved.

“There will never be any more heaven or hell than there is now,” Whitman wrote. It’s a warning, and a promise.

Goolsby, Jesse. I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

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Buy I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them here, here, or here

More about Jesse Goolsby

Reviews of I’d Walk in Time Now and The Literary Review

How Solemn As One by One – Walt Whitman
(Washington City, 1865.)

HOW solemn as one by one,
As the ranks returning worn and sweaty, as the men file by where
stand,
As the faces the masks appear, as I glance at the faces studying the
masks,
(As I glance upward out of this page studying you, dear friend,
whoever you are,)
How solemn the thought of my whispering soul to each in the ranks,
and to you,
I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,
O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
Nor the bayonet stab what you really are;
The soul! yourself I see, great as any, good as the best,
Waiting secure and content, which the bullet could never kill,
Nor the bayonet stab, O friend.

(emphasis mine)

What a Lovely Day!: Fury Road, Immersive Fiction, and Insurgents in the Movies

I was eagerly anticipating Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth movie in George Miller’s series. I’d enjoyed the first three films, and this fourth looked like, well, somethin’ else: Raccoon-eyed Charlize Theron, metal face masks, cars porcupined with rusty spikes, a gigantic dust storm, bald men pole-vaulting around on crashing big rigs, Tom Hardy in all his wackadoo glory – what was not to like?

I was even more delighted after reading a brief interview where Hardy described meeting Mel Gibson, the original Max: “He was bored with me. He said, ‘All right, buddy, good luck with that.’ Bless him. I made him a bracelet. And then we talked for a couple of hours about all kinds of stuff.”

Can I repeat: “Bless him. I made him a bracelet?!”

So I went and saw the movie, and was not disappointed in the least. Fury Road takes the gradually-apocalyptic degeneration of the first three Mad Max films to a whole new level: almost unrecognizable, undeniably creative. Water, instead of fuel, is the new scare resource, and the world (or at least Max’s part of it) is ruled by Immortan Joe, a completely bonkers, mask-wearing, polygamous overlord who has created an under-class of warriors to defend his Citadel and his dubious life within it.

Enter Furiosa (Theron), one of Joe’s Imperators who, on assignment driving his wives from one place to another, suddenly goes rogue, diverting her small caravan in a rash bid to reach the Green Place, the land where she was born. She hopes to save herself and, in Max-like fashion, bring a few others up along with her. Joe is seriously pissed, frantic even, and sends his war boys after her. This is the battle he has been waiting for.

FURY ROADPoor Max, who only wants to survive, is caught up in all this, chained to one of the war boys’ trucks and serving as a human blood bag to give an ailing fighter energy for what must be a death mission. There doesn’t seem to be much hope for any human connection in all this mess, but somehow, Max and Furiosa come to an understanding. He never even asks her why she is wearing so many damn belts.

furiosaIt’s not a romance, it’s not even an alliance that will last beyond the film’s three-day scope; but in the post-apocalypse Miller has created, it is enough.

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There’s something to be said for the whole world-building fun of fantasy or science fiction. When you enter a world like the one Miller has built in Mad Max, the learning curve is so high that there’s a built-in sense of satisfaction in the viewing. It doesn’t matter that you’re learning something that is not “real;” you are quickly acquiring a vocabulary, a code, outside of the one you normally live with, and that’s the only code that applies to the story. Even more than in regular fiction, there’s more of that brain-scramble each time a new character or entity arrives on the scene: Wait, who’s this? What’s HE about? Why is he doing that and how does it fit in with what the rest of them are doing?

I’m reminded of the first time I read Jose Saramogo’s Blindness or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: that sense that I was entering something complete and entire, which would be going on without my participation but which I could pick up and join in on if I wanted to make the effort. Suspend your disbelief: yes. With Mad Max you have a slightly nutty garble of vocabulary: there’s an Immortan, his Imperators, the Citadel (not the military college in South Carolina!), warboys and war pups, human “blood bags,” and the Vulvani (sorry, but ew, and that’s coming from a woman). This isn’t quite Riddley Walker-level word-riffing, but it says from the outset that what you know only partly applies here.

Immersive fiction requires your participation: you need to be willing to meet the story halfway, or else there is no way it’s going to be for you. You’re trying on the story even more than in a straightforward narrative; will it fit? You’re saying, Does this person’s imagination jibe with mine? If it does, it’s all the more satisfying.

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Fury Road opens with Max, as ever, alone, hanging around his V8 Interceptor and looking more like a grubby wild animal than a person. He’s quickly captured by some of Immortan Joe’s guys and dragged back to the Citadel to hang upside-down in a glorified fruit basket and live a twilight existence as a human blood bag for the aforementioned cancer-riddled war boy named Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult). Bald, scarred up the wazoo, with stitchy-looking lips, manic eyes and twin clavicular tumors named Barry and Larry, Nux’s sole ambition is to end his “half-life” in a blaze of glory, sacrificed for the war effort. (“What a day,” he shouts ecstatically, “what a lovely day!”) I did not expect Nux to win me over whatsoever, and in fact I rather hoped he’d die soon so that Max could go free.

Max does escape Nux (in a well-played sight gag), but Nux perseveres, and his character development was (for me) one of the pleasures of the film. It also speaks to the relevance I chose to take from the movie’s skewy but resonant moral compass. You can pick and choose your causes from Fury Road at will – environmental destruction, global warming, commodification of the body, “toxic masculinity,” go for it – but what I watched with particular interest, given this blog and the niche reading I’ve done over the past couple years, was the Spartafication of Max’s society. You’re pretty much hit over the head with this, so I’m not claiming any breathtaking insights, but I chose to take some of Miller’s directorial decisions as  references to our recent wars and the people who’ve fought them.

Immortan Joe is, obviously, a profit-obsessed despot with a comical lack of human affection for anything other than his fave wife and his unborn son. He hoards the one resource that should be most readily available to all – water – and keeps an entire class of men at the ready to give their lives for him. He’s not a religious man, but his war boys are fundamentalists, and their religion is him.

As fundamentalists, then, they operate by a whole separate subset of rules and allusions that is incomprehensible even to Max, and Max is pretty freakin’ weird. There were details that I thought were just brilliant: the insinuation of chemical warfare, whether decorative or destructive; how the war boys would spray-paint their teeth silver before leaping into the fray, a way of marking themselves ready for sacrifice; their constant supply of drugs – some kind of gas pumped into their vehicles — when they needed to really tap into their kamikaze ethos.

I was reminded of reading David Bellavia’s harrowing House to House, in which Bellavia, as a young Marine in the infamous and terrible Second Battle of Fallujah, describes insurgents being kept so amped up on pure epinephrine that they could be shot seven or eight times and their hearts would keep on beating. Cornered insurgents would stab themselves with syringes of adrenaline and advance to their dooms, hoping for nothing much more than to take out some Coalition forces with them – transformed into mere bodies for the war effort. It sounds a bit like fighting zombies, except for when Bellavia is forced to kill a man with his bare hands – a man who’s been desperate enough to try to literally chew Bellavia’s balls off right there in a shot-up house – and has to confront what he has taken on this one, individual level. The tear Bellavia witnesses sliding from the insurgent’s eye (whether emotional or some physical reflex of release) came back to me while I was watching Nux on the screen. (This is not to say that I really empathized with the man Bellavia was trying to kill, but Bellavia in some way, in those final moments, did.) “It’s just a war boy at the end of his half-life,” as one of Immortan Joe’s wives says.

Am I reading too much into it by connecting Fury Road and Operation Phantom Fury? Yeah, probably – because after all, Furiosa’s “fury” is not a negative thing. But I still think Miller is making a reference to the recent wars, to a fundamentalist mindset, to sub-classes of people marked only for lives as fighters ready to die. Given Miller’s leanings, he might extend this criticism to our own side of the fight as well (as do many writers of these recent wars). And maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.

In the end, though, Fury Road is about big action, a big world, big entertainment. Don’t ruin it by over-thinking, the way I always do. Grab a cold Coke and some popcorn and just revel in all the weird, kinetic, material energy, and if you feel so inclined, clap at the end like I (and a few others in the theater) did. Because it’s huge. And it’s fun. And it’s strange as all hell.