“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.
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.
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.
More about Jesse Goolsby
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
As the faces the masks appear, as I glance at the faces studying the
(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.