by Andria Williams
“To set the manner of remembrance is the highest form of ownership,” Brian Van Reet writes in his arresting, often exquisite first novel, Spoils. He’s writing from the point-of-view of a young, enlisted soldier, Specialist Cassandra Wigheard. Cassandra has just witnessed an appalling crime, but her thoughts here, I think, also have significance for professional storytellers, and maybe even more so for the writers of the recent wars. To remember something, even through fiction, is to set your own terms, to share your worldview with others: a fraught and intimidating thing to attempt, but one that, for author and reader alike, can yield tremendous rewards.
In Spoils—a novel Benjamin Busch describes as being one of “inescapable vows and unintended consequences”–Van Reet does what great fiction writers do best: imagines himself into three very different voices and plumbs the Iraq war through all three of these minds. By the end, he’s created a kaleidoscopic view of an incident in history that has great personal meaning to him. Exactly what kindles this impulse in fiction writers—at its most basic, “I’m going to imagine my way into understanding something that troubles me”—is rather a mystery to me, even as a fiction writer myself, but it creates some of the most meaningful art that I encounter, and Spoils is no exception.
The central protagonist in Spoils is the aforementioned Cassandra Wigheard, a young soldier from the Ozarks who has enlisted to escape a family she finds embarrassingly backwards—leaving “a hard life for a harder one.” Cassandra is sharp, observant, and witty in her own right; her observations of fellow soldier Crump made me laugh out loud. She sits, trapped in an overheated tank with rain pounding outside, and ponders what goes on between the man’s ears:
The Crump brain, gray matter calcified, frontal lobes shrunken like dried beans to shiver and rattle inside the skull’s brittle gourd. The army has distilled and eventually dissolved his every sense of nuance and tact.
Oh, I’ve met a few like Crump in my day, but I’ve never been trapped in a tank with him. In any case, Cassandra shares some positive similarities with Ree Dolly, Daniel Woodrell’s tough, well-sketched, Ozark-born female protagonist in Winter’s Bone. Both women are action-oriented-but-self-contained, both prefer female companions to men (not ideal for Cassandra in her current tank situation), and both can identify the weak points in their families and upbringing—though Ree, perhaps more realistically, has the deeply entangled insiders’ view of her own situation, and does not find leaving home and family so easy. While I thought Cassandra’s blithe departure–and ability to detach herself from her family as if she’d not been brought up influenced by their every word and action–slightly less believable, it was the only chink in Van Reet’s otherwise impressive armor as he writes multiple sections from an “other” perspective with elegance, confidence, and empathy most writers fall far short of. Peter Molin notes that Van Reet, as “a UVa-educated gentleman…circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person,” whereas the two mens’ POVs are in the first-person. Gentlemanly, perhaps, but also, as Molin appears to think, wise: it works.
After an exchange of fire that ends miserably for the Americans, Cassandra is captured and held captive by a small, somewhat ragtag group of mujahideen, and while she interacts with them in intense, painful intervals, for the most part Van Reet is embroiled with Cassandra’s consciousness alone for several chapters, and he rises to the occasion. As a woman and a writer I am generally appreciative, though not coddling, of male writers who attempt a female perspective. I admire the risk that they take, but for many male writers, there is still some uncanny valley that remains, some subtle but too-telling chivalry or sexualization that distances me slightly from the mind I’m supposed to be in. Usually, it’s still worth their risk, and I would never dissuade them; but what I’m getting at here is that Van Reet leaves no little openings for me to doubt Cassandra’s thoughts or how she is feeling. Her connection to a young mujahideen named Al-Safs—primarily opportunistic, but more than that, too— is perfectly written. A scene in which her menstrual cycle terrorizes the devout jihadists manages to be both hilarious and abysmal. The novel’s epigraph, from Aeschylus, suggests that perhaps we should see Cassandra as the Trojan princess from Greek myth, granted the power of prophecy but, after spurning Apollo, forced to endure a life where no one believes her prophecies. I’m not entirely sure I see the parallel, though I could very well be missing something. Cassandra does, early on, wonder if she’s guilty of “the sin of underestimation.” If anything, her pragmatic view could be what others on both sides of the war are missing—that war is not about ideology or valor so much as simply staying alive. You are alive. You are still alive, she thinks to herself, when her situation becomes very, very bad. She grabs for each second, and keeps on, until.
A second narrator is the aging mujahideen Abu Al-Hool, who, after many grueling years of service and of loss, hopes to leave the Walid’s small and focused band for some kind of retirement into normal life. One can certainly empathize with him here, and I found his narrative engaging and believable. After a childhood spent touring the great cities of Europe—Paris, Amsterdam, Rome—he finds himself marginally employed in his early twenties, looking for something to which he might attach himself. “There’s no creature more abhorrent than an underachieving rich boy,” he muses, and allows himself to get caught up in various extremist battles—such as Chechnya, where he suffers the bitterest loss, that of his son. Al-Hool’s attachment to the young Abu-Safs, who reminds him of the son he lost, is poignant, but will not prevent Al-Hool from doing whatever it takes to escape the Walid and make his way back toward the larger world.
The final narrator is a soldier named Sleed, and this gets interesting: Sleed also happens to be the protagonist of the one other piece of fiction I’ve read by Van Reet, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” in the terrific anthology Fire and Forget (ed. Scranton/Gallagher) which, I want to note, has not lost any of its power in the years since its publication and which happens to contain one of my all-time favorite Siobhan Fallon stories, “Tips for a Smooth Transition.” In any case, by the time we meet Sleed in “Hunting Creek”—a story narrated by Sleed’s fellow soldier and close friend, Rooster—Sleed has “lost his cock and balls and one of his legs above the knee.” There’s no sugar-coating that: so. In “Hunting Creek” Sleed is, quite frankly, a jackass, so damaged by the war that he seems nearly irreparable. His wife, “The Bitch,” has left him; he’s hired a P.I. to follow her. He’s a mess of a human, but a believable one, and there lies the heartache.
So it spun me around for a moment to meet Sleed again, or an Ur-Sleed,–or perhaps, the Later-Written Incarnation of Sleed–in Spoils, where he’s younger and whole and fairly functional and even a little bit of a nag to his fellow soldiers, who are giddy with the treasures left behind in Saddam’s palace and keen to plunder whatever they can in any spare second. Sleed’s always cautioning them to cut that crap out, but he finally gives in, too.
While the Sleed in “Hunting Creek” is harder to stomach, he’s also more-clearly drawn; we learn that he was raised in a series of foster homes, that he uses “n*gga” constantly and inappropriately but somehow in a way devoid of racial specification; and so on. Sleed as we see him in Spoils is more of a sort of observant everyman, and that’s fine; he doesn’t need to line up, necessarily, with the earlier version, and he serves a different, slightly more diffuse purpose here.
In any case, he will become involved with the group of mujahideen that are confining Al-Hool and imprisoning Cassandra; and, like Van Reet himself, Sleed will have the last word. The remembrance, ultimately, is Van Reet’s — and through fiction, he owns it.
Van Reet, Brian. Spoils. Back Bay Books (Little, Brown & Co., 2017).
Purchase Spoils here.
About the author:
Brian Van Reet is the author of Spoils, a novel that won the Balcones Prize, the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award in Fiction, and was longlisted or a finalist for other awards, including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. It was named one of the best books of 2017 by the Guardian, Military Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others. A U.S. Army veteran, Van Reet is the recipient of a Bronze Star for valor, a James A. Michener Fellowship, and has twice won the Texas Institute of Letters short story award.
About the Reviewer: Andria Williams is the author of The Longest Night (Random House, 2016), founding editor of the Military Spouse Book Review, and a fiction and poetry editor for the literary journal, Wrath-Bearing Tree.