Book Review: Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn

(reviewed by Andria Williams, Navy)

In the last few months, I’ve read a lot of war literature, mainly because people keep sending me books to review (if you are one of those people, thank you!). I’ll admit that literary fiction in general is what I love, and I never expected to read so much war lit, but when you run a blog called the Military Spouse Book Review and you are a glutton for free books, people just keep sending you stuff. In this instance I was glad, because if I hadn’t been sent a copy of Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn, I might have passed it over, and I would have missed a thrill ride of a novel.

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Wynne’s War is a Western, but Aaron Gwyn is gutsy enough to have set it in the mountains of modern Afghanistan, making it a book about the recent war, too. I wondered how he’d dodge all the questions about authenticity and voice and appropriation that necessarily come up when one is writing about soldiers: he does this by giving the novel a whopper of a plot that frees him from some of the journalistic-and-moralistic tendencies of war writing, and allows the reader the enjoyment of good literature, with all the richness of story and character that it should contain.

Wynne’s War concerns itself with a young Army Ranger named Elijah Russell (a name that rings both messianic and plain ol’ country) who, in the heat of battle, rescues a beautiful appaloosa horse from a bullet-riddled public square. Nearly killed by the RPG fired at him, Russell recovers to learn that Army brass have noticed his little stunt (which handily showcased the riding skills he’d gained growing up on an Oklahoma ranch, grandson of a famous horse trainer) — thanks to the BBC journalist who recorded the whole thing from across the street.  Russell is pulled from his unit to join a group of Green Berets  in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border, where his new job will be to break a band of untrained horses so that the Green Berets can ride them on covert missions.

It’s a dream job for Russell, and the bonus is that he gets to bring his battle buddy Wheels along, and he meets a girl on the firebase — the somewhat damaged (but not inconveniently so) beauty Sara, a medic who’s trying to keep her own past suicide attempt under wraps.

Also a dream — or maybe a nightmare — is Russell’s larger-than-life platoon leader, the eponymous Captain Wynne. Wynne is a legend for having come back from being pronounced dead after a firefight to spit right in the attending medic’s face. He left a six-figure career on Wall Street to join the Army. Like Crocodile Dundee, he tames wild beasts using the power of his will. His men worship him. He is….. the most interesting man in the world!

Except that he really is. And as time goes on Russell realizes that Wynne might be an ascetic warrior-priest risking his life for a higher ideal, or he might be a mercenary leading his men to their deaths solely for personal gain. Don’t you want to read to find out?

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Aaron Gwyn, author of Wynne’s War

Let me get down to a bit of the nitty-gritty. First off, at least so far as this sheltered Navy wife can tell, Gwyn nails the military details. He interviewed dozens of Rangers, Greenies, and other veterans for research, and, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, hints that he undertook a sort of Philipp-Meyer-like, Method-Author brand of study: “I’m a big believer in the idea of sense-memory,” he explained, “and of physically experiencing as much as possible in order to accurately portray a profession — in the case of this novel, soldiering.” Gwyn’s obsessive penchant for detail gives you that all-important confidence in the storyteller, a nebulous quality less-confident writers would pay good money to attain. Very rarely, it gets to be a little much (did I really need to know that Russell’s issued clothing includes “Four pairs of North Face pants in… ‘dune beige.’ North Face fleece in gray and black. North Face thermal jackets. Long-sleeved T-shirts from REI”? I was starting to feel like I was going through some Lake Tahoe yuppie’s closet).

Such “TMI moments” are few and far-between, however, and overall the details are fantastic.  The dialogue made me a believer, too; it’s colorful and gritty (during Wynne’s legendary near- death experience, he’s said to have been “circling the drain,” nearly “fucked the monkey,” and so on).

The Rangers who populate the story are interesting and strange and well-drawn:

Wheels had a dotted line tattooed around his neck, clavicle to clavicle, above which the crooked words CUT HERE had been inked in caps. He said he didn’t want his parents seeing him beheaded on Aljazeera, and Russell agreed it’d make for sorry programming.

“You’d shoot me, right?” Wheels asked. “If we got taken?”

“Might shoot you anyways,” Russell told him.

 Ah, man-banter — that hallmark of soldier stories. And it works; you root for this buddy-cop pair, Russell and Wheels, up against, and shepherded by, the inscrutable Captain Wynne.

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As protagonists go, Russell serves the same purpose as, say, Nick in The Great Gatsby or Marlow in Heart of Darkness — if Nick were, you know, a modern-day Army Ranger (he was a veteran!). Captain Wynne is as fascinating to him as Gatsby was to that novel’s narrator, though they have less of an emotional bond.

Russell’s the quiet heart of the novel, but he’s often just going along with its events.  He is also, as Peter Molin smartly described Billy Lynn, “the kind of guy who always knows a little more or a little less than everybody else.” He’s an upstanding fellow from humble origins, doing his best, and when he’s not shooting “Talibs” or taming horses, he’s downright submissive. He isn’t sure what compelled him to rescue that appaloosa in the first place; he’s not sure what draws him to Sara; even during their one furtive sexual encounter he’s almost maddeningly passive, nearly paralyzed on a medical table while Sara startles him out of a dead opiate sleep. (If that isn’t a jock dream for you, I don’t know what is. Also: doctor-patient privilege?!)

I could talk about this book all day, and hopefully sometime soon I’ll find another person who’s read it so I can corner them and gently abuse them with my strong opinions. It made me want to write an essay on the idea of “children of adversity,” which is what Capt. Wynne claims all successful Special Forces members are; this is an idea I’ve come across dozens of times recently, from Billy Lynn to Christy Clothier’s recollection of what her drill sergeant shouted during Basic (“I know that you have been beaten, hurt, abused! Why else do girls join the military?”) Sweet Russell fits the “child of adversity” profile perfectly: father killed by a train (!) when he was a toddler; abandoned by a druggie mom he hasn’t seen since he was seven. The interesting twist is that possible-monk/madman Captain Wynne himself  — high-school all-American, Princeton-educated double-major in religious studies and finance, hedge-fund manager — seems to be the lone character who is not a child of adversity. Of course, there could be things he’s not telling us.

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War literature sometimes seems to get slightly bogged down in trying to answer the question: What was it like? (To which, unfortunately, the answer usually is, You can’t know what war is like unless you’ve been in it — probably true, but a slammed door for any author who hasn’t been in combat themselves.) True war-chronicle-writing remains the province of veterans, and this is as it should be — but fiction, novels, are fair game. Gwyn prods the assertion that you can only know what you’ve lived, and write what you know, as early as the novel’s opening quote from Cormac MacCarthy: “His father had said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.”

Aaron Gwyn has, like most of us, not gone into war on horseback, or into war at all, but that doesn’t  matter — he shows that it’s possible to bring a whole world to the reader, within a hair’s breadth of the real thing, not for the sole purpose of mimicry but for the higher purpose of art.  Sure, we can’t understand war and we can’t understand horses, but who really understands life, either?

In the words of Captain Wynne: “And yet, here you sit.”

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Gwyn, Aaron. Wynne’s War. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014.

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Boston, books, and love that lasts

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This Memorial Day weekend had my husband and I traveling — without the kids!! — to Boston to attend a friend’s wedding. It was quite an experience to board a plane in sunny, ultra-casual Southern California, where the golden hills and bright blue sky seem to foster a sort of perpetual blissed-out amnesia — and then land just a few hours later, 3,000 miles away, in a brick-and-cobblestone, history-steeped city where no one was wearing Cali shirts or  Vibram Fivefingers, accents honked across the narrow streets like horns, and Pinkberry and “CorePower Yoga” have hardly made a dent. (Horns were also honking, in addition to accents. Bostonians are impatient drivers.)

Add to this the fact that the fabulous wedding we attended was an intricate, breathtaking affair in the high Boston tradition, and it was quite a welcome little culture shock.

And we were, as usual, running late. Memorial Day weekend also seemed to coincide with Harvard graduation and a cheerfully boisterous indie music festival.

My poor husband grappled with impossible traffic (we had driven in from New Hampshire, where we’d been staying with my uncle) and when we finally found a metered parking space, we didn’t have enough quarters.

Luckily, I learned that there is no more honorable pursuit in Bostonians’ eyes than trying to make it to a wedding. (Everywhere we went, if we just blurted, “We’re trying to get to a wedding,” people would shout, “Oh my GAWD! Here are some quarters/ get in front of me in line/ etc. You’ve gotta get to that wedding!”) And indeed, when I sheepishly approached a family and asked to exchange a dollar for four quarters, after their initial glance of suspicion at my request the husband and wife did shout almost in unison, “Oh, my GAWD! No, keep your dollah! Take the quartahs, you’ve gotta get to that wedding!”

So, yes, we made it to the wedding.

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Saved by the nice people with the quarters. That’s Dave lookin’ smooth, and me lookin’ like Christmas.

I am fairly certain we were the only military couple there, surrounded by  Harvard profs (like the groom) and musicians and artists and architects (and lots of teachers too, which made me feel at home!). The bride and groom made elegant remarks, danced the foxtrot, and were whisked away in a white horse-drawn carriage (after which a member of the wedding party cried out, “Now THAT’s a Boston wedding!”) Little signs proclaimed that their signature cocktail was the Kir Royale (Dave joked, “I think our signature cocktail is milk.”) But everyone was so kind and friendly that we never felt out-of-place, and could just enjoy all the classiness that surrounded us. It was very sweet to see my friend so happy, moving on to another chapter of her life.

Before we could get back to our own ongoing and somewhat intense life-chapter (the three kids!), we had to spend the night in Boston. With the parking situation so bad, Dave actually had to park on the nearby Coast Guard base (thank you, Coasties, for the hospitality!).

My friend the bride, a master of thoughtful and meticulous planning, had taken the time to recommend custom lodging for many of her guests and for us, that was the Mariner’s House — a small, historic hotel “for active members of the seafaring services.”

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 “Founded in 1847 by the Boston Port and Seamen’s Aid Society, Mariners House was and remains a respite where seafarers and their families can find comfortable, affordable lodging and meals, professional guidance and religious counseling. In addition to the inn itself, Mariners House offers a breadth of services designed specifically to address the needs of professional mariners. ” (from the web site)

The lodge was historic, clean, simple and cozy — and affordable. Just our style. In the morning we elbowed our way to the register at Mike’s Pastry and enjoyed the best croissants we’d ever tasted.

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IMG_4936Amaretto cannoli, whoopee pies, German brownie and black-n’-whites to go…

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We collected our car from the Coast Guard base, admiring their pretty white ships — so much nicer than the Navy’s functional, endless gray. (Haze gray and underway!)

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It was the perfect weekend to read two of the most-opposite books on the planet: Courtney Maum’s I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War. Honestly, those books could not have been more different — a smart, frothy, hilarious novel about an artist in Paris trying to reclaim his wife, his integrity, and a very special painting — and a vivid, edge-of-your-seat modern Western set in Afghanistan. (Review of Wynne’s War forthcoming — I loved it.) They were each just what I needed, such satisfying books that I was not remotely tempted to watch the in-flight movie on either arrival or departure.

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is not officially out until June 10th, and another military spouse has already clamored to review it, so I won’t do a full review here– consider this an excited little nudge in the direction of Here’s a great summer read.

A great summer read, but the perfect thematic read for a wedding weekend. It occurred to me during my friend’s wedding that part of the purpose of such ceremonies, nearly as much as the act of sealing the betrothed couple, is the refresher course on commitment it gives everyone in attendance. Watching two people take that big step, you remember when you took your own, and how you felt about your partner back at that new and daring time. It’s kind of like getting a fidelity-booster-shot.

Fun Here Without You has a similar effect — the literary equivalent of watching When Harry Met Sally (a classic if ever there was one!).  The novel is about a man named Richard who has, through his own error, lost his wife, and the funny and fumbling road he takes to try to get back to her. He’s looking for a grand gesture, the one big act that will sweep her off her feet — but along his journey he learns that it’s actually the everyday gesture, the little act of patience and love, that builds a marriage. He starts out lamenting “the dead cell cast of seven years of marital fidelity”: “How did married people do it without cheating? Sweating and grunting and drooling on their pillow nightly side by side, expected at some point to reach over and caress the person who had become as familiar and uninteresting as an extension of their own arm, and fuck?”

But Richard begins filming his parents and their friends, sitting back-to-back and while they talk about love and devotion.

“And what do you love most about her?” My father looked up at the camera when I said this.

“She’s kind,” he said. “She’s silly. She doesn’t get uptight.”

“And what do you dislike?”

“…She’s not, you’re not — she’s not a good driver.”

…Mum twisted around in her chair again. “Well, that can’t be all, George. Personally, I have a lot of them! He’s a hummer, but he’s only got one tune. And he never puts the top back correctly on the malt bottle. ..But he’s a good dancer. …And he makes the bed in the morning, how many people can say that? And you know, he doesn’t disappoint me.”

As Richard studies the importance of kind gestures, he recalls a picnic his own wife, Anne-Laure, made years before, on the day he realized that he loved her.

On that particular Sunday, she’d suggested a bike ride out to Barrington beach and promised me a picnic…In common Anne fashion, she had everything prepared: a blanket, towels, a small umbrella just in case, and a cooler full of treats…[She got me] with the care she put into this picnic, the things she’d done to transform a Sunday afternoon into a moment that would make me look at my life and realize that I wanted her with me, in it. Always.

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(Somehow, my own obsessive picnicking habit does not have such an intoxicating effect on my own husband. This is my picnic basket. You can click on the picture to enlarge. You know you want to. And yet, Dave merely tolerates this — my endless Tupperwares and balls of tin foil and my crowing about “how much money we’ve saved!”  — as other families walk past unwrapping round hamburgers and scarfing steaming boats of French fries. How can he not see this picnic basket and look at his life and realize that he wants me in it? Always?!)

Watching the care with which my friend had planned her own wedding — the church service, the hymns, the signature cocktail, the 1940s and ’50s music on the dance floor — I realized that she was making a statement about her life with this other person, and doing it with great care. She and Anne-Laure would make great friends.

And me and Dave? We are great friends, too. If the little things matter, then he is a champion. Halfway through our six-hour flight I wanted to use the restroom, but the line at the back of the plane was six people deep. I pointed this out to Dave who said, sweetly and inexplicably, “Oh, do you want me to wait in line with you?” And I almost laughed, because it would never have occurred to me to ask someone to keep me company in a boring, crowded plane-restroom-line. But still, he thought of that. So I just smiled at him, because I knew that whether I was dancing at a wedding or waiting in a line on an airplane, nobody would make better company than him.

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Courtney Maum, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. Simon & Schuster, June 2014.

Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War. Houghton Mifflin, May 2014.