“They said he was home, but no one had proved it.” — Benjamin Busch, “Into the Land of Dogs”
David Foster Wallace has said that fiction creates “one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” He’s talking specifically about reading fiction, but I think writing fiction can have the same effect. Writing in isolation, then putting that work out into the world, having it met halfway (if you’re lucky), is somehow both the nurturing and annulment of loneliness all in one.
The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, a new anthology of fiction by veterans, is often about loneliness. It’s also often very witty, dark, moving, surreal, absurd, and gut-wrenching. Each of the 25 standalone stories, by writers well-known within the veteran-writing community and beyond, is its own unique experience; each voice is different; each will make your head spin in a slightly different way, and will leave you with a different aftertaste: sadness, relief, horror, or a headshake and a dry chuckle. But in trying to think of a cohesive way to describe these stories, what I kept coming back to was the characters’ loneliness, which keeps many of them in a kind of purgatory. They are neither still at war nor truly back at home; in at least one case they haven’t even left yet. This theme has been explored before, sure, but most commonly in nonfiction. The Road Ahead is most successful, even dazzling, when its contributors allow their imaginations full, fictional reign. In these stories, some male writers take on the challenge of writing female protagonists, and quite a few American writers delve into the Iraqi or Afghan perspective (Kristen L. Rouse, Maurice Decaul, David James). The results are very good, with all of these authors writing fiction that is both an artistic practice and an effort of empathy. In other stories, most notably the exciting run that starts with Matthew Hefti’s “We Put a Man in a Tree” and continues unabated to the end of the book, experimentation takes the form of surrealism, or a Southern-Gothic bleak humor (Adrian Bonenberger’s “American Fapper,” and yes, that refers to what you think it does), or pure poetry (Decaul’s “Death of Time”). Here, the stories gain a momentum and darkness that make them riveting.
There’s a soldier who carries his Warrant Officer’s decapitated head through the Afghan desert after a helo crash, helmet and all, wanting to bury it so it will be safe from Taliban and dogs, in Benjamin Busch’s contribution, “Into the Land of Dogs.” (It’s creepy, surreal, sad, and also darkly comical, perhaps a somewhat perverse nod to Tom Hanks’s “Cast Away” character who spends his days with his volleyball, Wilson. But what if Wilson were a human head?!)
There’s a story narrated by the ghosts (!) who taunt and bait a veteran, egging him to violence and feeding on his psychic pain (“We Put a Man in a Tree”). There’s a Marine who fakes his own combat injury–even though he’s already injured–because he’s terrified he’ll return home without a combat ribbon (Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades”). Lauren Halloran’s protagonist is an Air Force mechanic, freshly home from a deployment her jealous stateside boyfriend couldn’t quite hack, who commences her reentry into civilian femininity with a plan she calls “Operation Slut.”
The tragicomedy hits its zenith with Eloise, a brilliantly-written wounded warrior’s wife in Brandon Caro’s “The Morgan House,” forced to take part in a pizza-party-of-pity she doesn’t want, while her kids run amok and her triple-amputee husband chides her for being obese:
“Eloise here, she can eat enough for both of us, ain’t that right honey?”
“Don’t mind him.” She rolled her eyes, as though she’d heard the rib a million times already. “He gets this way when he’s whacked out on them pills.” She paused for a moment and laughed forcibly before adding, “Which is pretty much all of the damn time!”
These are veterans imagining other veterans, imagining civilians, imagining veterans’ wives and people with either less or (hopefully) more of a burden than they, themselves, carry.
Through fiction, they look loneliness, deceit, human frailty, and hope in the eye. Here’s David Foster Wallace again:
Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.
I can’t speak to all of those, here on this blog. But fiction? Absolutely.
The Road Ahead is quite lovely as a work of art, from cover to cover. With wry, elegant interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch, it stands alone as an artifact and keepsake, and is simply a beautiful book.
I love the idea of illustrations accompanying short stories; it adds both gravitas and flair, and somehow makes the story feel more complete. The act of illustrating a story, kind of like a different form of note-taking, also deepens the experience for the reader as well. So I made myself doodle while I read, and while my illustration skills are amateur indeed, it was a fun exercise — almost like being back in elementary school and drawing pictures along with your book report. (And if this blog is not a glorified book report, I don’t know what is.)
I want to say a few more words about a couple of the stories that made an impact on me.
There are five women veterans featured in The Road Ahead, and all of their stories are worth reading. From Kayla Williams’s grieving Sgt. Kate Stevens, trying to find solace in casual sex, to Teresa Fazio’s narrator, concerned about her attraction to an enlisted man who seems, somehow, less sturdy than she, each story examines femininity in the context of war.
The one exception to this theme is Kristen Rouse’s “Pawns,” which is different for the effort Rouse makes to contemplate people very different from her: a former Afghan commando named Nasir, now defector and truck driver trying to live a life of peace, confronted with a former enemy (an old man who is now a friend) and a young Jihadist who confounds and angers him. Nasir, passing the time playing chess and hoping the Americans will let their vehicles through, is drawn back into dark memories of a failed mission he barely survived.
if God wills it
The boy stared with cold eyes at Nasir. ‘Taliban would pay your family if you explode yourself,’ he said.
Nasir froze and felt a chill shoot through his body. Then his face flushed with anger. ‘Taliban would pay my family one time. I pay my family each truckload I deliver. I came back to my country ten years ago to make my family’s life better, not worse. The Taliban have nothing for my family that I do not already give them,’ he said, growing angry.
‘The Americans are infidels,’ the boy said.
‘The Taliban are no better,’ Nasir said.
‘God is the greatest,’ the boy said.
‘God is the greatest,’ Nasir replied in a harsh tone.
‘I will be a foot soldier for Islam,’ the boy said.
‘Who has filled your head with such foolishness?’ Nasir asked.
Matthew Hefti’s aforementioned “We Put a Man in a Tree” stands out for its many bold moves, most notably its narration by the group of ghosts who have attached themselves to a man named JJ, rooting for his self-destruction. From Nadir, who is seven, with a white nightgown and “darkened red tummy…elegant, like the flag of Japan,” to Ray, who “never stops smiling with gritted teeth….no one came and saw him in the home,” these ghosts follow poor JJ, tormenting him, whispering to him when he looks in the bathroom mirror, throwing rocks at him til he goes blind. He does not seem entirely aware of them, only of the effect they have on him. But Hefti still manages to work in a dark humor that, at times, made me laugh out loud:
‘How are you weird?”‘[JJ asks ‘X,’ the kid who confides in him at a bar/restaurant]. You seem like every other twenty-one-year-old kid I’ve ever known.’
‘Twenty-two,’ X said. ‘And I don’t feel I can tell you.’ He looked down into his beer for a long time. ‘But then again,’ he said. ‘I feel you’d understand. The thing is, I still have my V-card.’
…Over and over the kid apologized, and JJ said, ‘Stop it. That’s great. I stand in awe of you. You really don’t have to apologize. I’ve been there.’
We jumped in, of course, and asked, ‘How is he not weird?’ and ‘How can you really say you’ve been there?’
“That’s great. I stand in awe of you.”
From there, the story takes a shocking turn, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it kind of kept me up for about half a night. As did Brian Castner’s “The Wild Hunt,” which gave me an actual bad dream (THANKS, CASTNER), but I mean that as a compliment.
Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” also stuck with me, for its surreality, its post-apocalyptic feel (man wandering in the desert with his compatriot’s head), and its gorgeous, precise language. One section of the story echoes the phrase “He found…he found..” in a sort of lulling voice, almost making the post-apocalyptic desirable. “He found belongings left along trails from the south….He found a house sitting like litter at the base of the ashen valley, saved by solitude.”
this dog is disappointed there’s not more meat on that bone
He thinks of the men who perished in the crash: “His body was torn in ways blood couldn’t imagine…No one was buried complete.” Like Jacob wrestling the angel, he fights a vulture in hand-to-hand (wing?) combat.
In his discussion of The Road Ahead, Peter Molin of Time Now asks how war lit will change in this post-Obama era, the age of Trump. He notes, “The Road Ahead points more clearly to where we were on November 7, 2016, than to where we are going after January 20, 2017.” I had this same impression, but perhaps would not have known how to vocalize it. The stakes are escalating, Molin notes. And it’s true that there is a certain indulgence to the feel of The Road Ahead, a playfulness that has little to lose. I like that creativity, that prismatic playfulness, which I think is a pillar of good fiction. But I also like Peter’s question: What will veterans’ fiction look like in the age of Trump?
I have no solid answers, but I do have a few guesses. First, the risque play of the sexual power differential is going to take on a very different feel; I felt this shift almost immediately with the recent election, while watching the HBO series Westworld. What had felt like daring forays only weeks before felt suddenly, after Trump’s victory, distasteful and unwelcome. Suddenly, violence against women, no matter how campy or self-aware or absurd, did not feel at all funny. Would Bonenberger’s story “American Fapper,” terrific as it is, have been written immediately after a Trump victory? How about PJ Frederick’s “The Church?”
For the past eight years, when it comes to political expression, a sort of whimsical, twee, collective nostalgia or empowerment seemed to fit the bill. Just be yourself, and society will catch up to you! But all that time that adorable twenty-somethings were dancing around in Coke ads, thrilled to be themselves, Trump’s America was watching. Waiting. Ready to rip those little snowflakes a new one, like the cadre of ghosts in Matt Hefti’s story. You’re doing better, you’re working on your life, you’re in recovery? Loser, joke’s on you.
With Trump promising a defense budget bloated and inflated beyond Henry Kissinger’s wildest dreams, and veterans guaranteed, or maybe enslaved, to a war that will simply never end, war fiction will surely take a new direction. The stakes are higher, and things may get more serious.
I hope the war writing of the future doesn’t lose its humor. I hope the kid gloves are not on too tight.
The one thing I feel confident in? That these veterans’ voices will continue to be perceptive, funny, witty, heartbreaking and wise. On that, I’m 100% sure.
Bonenberger, Adrian and Castner, Brian. The Road Ahead. Pegasus Books, 2017.
Buy The Road Ahead here.