by Alison Buckholtz
Early on in Waiting for Eden, the moving new novel from Elliot Ackerman, we learn how Mary, the wife of the main character, Eden, is like almost all of the people who will be reading this book. Mary stands vigil at Eden’s bedside in a military burn center as Eden–so grievously harmed from a roadside bomb in Iraq that he’s known as “the most wounded man of the entire war”–neither recovers nor dies. During her three-year watch, Mary keeps track of the number of dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan separately, because that’s how the headlines count them. But to her it seems like one continuous war, so the number in her head is larger, and Eden, she believes, will soon be the “plus one” she must add to the total. She thinks of it as “his number.”
Mary is plugged in to a potent truth. America has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade and a half, and to most Americans it is one long war in which those who have perished are numbers, not individuals with rich and complicated histories and relationships. There’s no malice in that. It’s almost impossible to understand what’s been lost when someone you don’t know personally dies.
But what if you could know—intimately—just one soldier, not quite a man anymore but not yet a number either? What if the person who told the story was his best friend, even though that best friend is already dead—taken in the same bomb blast—and waiting for his comrade to join him on the other side?
That’s how Ackerman, a Marine veteran and the author of two previous novels, plays alchemist here: he makes the war real by giving us Eden the man just before he becomes Eden the number. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Eden eventually succumbs to his injuries. After all, the nurses on the flight that transport him from the Hamrin Valley to San Antonio conclude that if he’s the most wounded man from both the wars what that really means is “As advanced as medicine had become, that most likely made him the most wounded many in the history of war.” In fact, the dead narrator thinks he’s much luckier than Eden, who is kept alive yet suffers terribly.
The facts are indeed grim. Eden’s infections forced the doctors to “cut all of him off up to the torso,” and most of what’s left is burned almost beyond recognition. Mary is not allowed to touch or kiss Eden because it would harm him, and when a nurse gently places her hand on his chest, his skin flakes off on her. After a series of strokes, Eden is blind and deaf. Because his voice is gone, too, he clicks his teeth in a tap code when he wants to say something.
But his consciousness is intact and his thoughts are coherent—so much so that the salt from his tears, triggered by his memories as well as physical pain, stings his charred face.
The narrator fills in the years that led up to the moment that this 70-pound shell of a soldier decides his end has finally arrived and finds a way to communicate it. The strongest flashbacks explain the narrator’s connection to both Eden and to Mary, and his role in a betrayal. It’s a compelling tale, spare and driven, and short enough to be finished in one sitting.
The book’s economy of language never diminishes its elegance. Eden’s hospital room, where so much of the book takes place, is often described in terms that are lyrical, as when “a soft coronet rested around each light” and “trestles of shadow fell across Eden’s bed.” Eden, though trapped in his own body, senses Mary in the room like a “dark rumor.”
Other moments are searing because they capture the essence of military life in a way that’s unknowable to civilians and difficult to put into words even for those who experience it themselves. The episode that includes Form SGLV 8286 is a good example. The narrator relates an evening just before his and Eden’s deployment, when all of the troops gathered for a mandatory meeting. A lance corporal instructs them on how to designate their survivor benefits in case they don’t make it home.
“She rattled off the alphanumeric designator as sig-luve eighty-two eight-six, demonstrating a bureaucrat’s flair for pronouncing any combination of letters and numbers if it were a word,” he remembers, quietly building up to the point of what seems like a straightforward pre-deployment exercise. This is the troops’ Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance paperwork, designating $400,000 to the person each soldier lists on the form.
Ackerman rightly captures this as the instant that matters, that exposes everything: “What we each put down was personal, and perfectly diminishing, the secret or not so secret truth of who you love most placed on a form,” the narrator says.
The narrator pockets that form so he can fill it out later, away from Eden, because his own secret must remain hidden. It does, almost until the end. Once it’s revealed it leaves him exposed and ashamed, but without regret. At that moment he is still waiting for Eden to join him on the other side, where the two can face their changed reality together. He won’t have to wait much longer.
Ackerman, Eliot. Waiting for Eden. Knopf, 2018.
About the Author
ELLIOT ACKERMAN is the author of the novels Waiting for Eden, Dark at the Crossing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Green on Blue. His writings have appeared in Esquire, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Travel Writing. He is both a former White House Fellow and Marine, and served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. He divides his time between New York City and Washington, D.C.
About the Reviewer
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.