By Phil Klay
291 pages, $26.95
By Ed Taylor
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Virgil wrote in “The Aeneid,” “Far off, o keep far off, you uninitiated ones” – good advice for making literature out of war.
Combat is a part of human existence that is almost trivialized by imagination – the reality far outstrips human invention. It’s difficult to even talk about writing about war without sounding both patronizing and naïve. So far in the history of literature, the best work arguably has been written by those who were there. This usually means soldiers but sometimes reporters or other intimately involved observers. America’s Iraq entanglement has produced good books, but the one that’s currently being pitched as the soldier’s book the world’s been waiting for is Phil Klay’s story collection “Redeployment.”
However, the best war stories aren’t about a war – they’re about War. The good ones are certainly anchored in a particular conflict but are also transcendent and universal, using a particular conflict’s texture and events to render a picture that on some level touches all wars and all soldiers and all of us that send them into what they are sent into.
Klay’s lauded book – the New York Times called it “the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls” – is the work of a talented writer, Dartmouth graduate, and former Marine captain with a big publicity machine pushing him into the spotlight. It is sturdy, honest, raw, elegiac, and, in a way, noble, and is determinedly about the Iraq War. It’s certainly worth reading. However, those who wait for a definitive Iraq book might have to keep waiting. The best thing on what the war did to people’s souls? With all due respect, I’m not so sure.
The 12 first-person stories begin with the title story, “Redeployment,” which begins, “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person so I thought about it a lot.”
The story unfolds around a Marine arriving home to Lejeune, trying to find normal with a wife and a world he barely knows after being so far away, literally and figuratively. The plot’s axis becomes the narrator’s old dog, Vicar, who’s in bad shape. The narrator has to decide what to do about that.
Like most of the stories, the diction and voice are plain-spoken and terse, sounding like the volunteers who signed up for this duty, most of whom didn’t go to Dartmouth. The stories are similar in tone and style and point of view, usually either that of combat duty or one of the other military occupations that aren’t in harm’s way but interact intimately with those who are.
Some of the stories are in-country, some are stateside; most are organized around the harrowing orbit of mission and return to base, the others on making sense of life after Iraq. One is set at Amherst College and is a pas de deux between a matriculated vet and a coed, who spar over Islam and ethnicity and his attempts to connect to life again.
Similarities among stories bring up one possible problem – there’s a potential monotony, both in actual character’s voices and in overall narrative voice. Even the lawyers and investment bankers who show up in “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound,” the narrator of which has left Iraq for New York University law school, talk like the enlisted men in other stories.
What becomes more problematic is the accretion of issues. One of these is the conflation of testimony with fiction writing. I’m using “testimony” in its documentary sense – the unvarnished reporting of the innumerable things about this bloody, brutal war that most Americans don’t have a clue about, the things that soldiers learn and have as scars the rest of their lives.
The issue is that naturalistic fiction more than occasionally requires that reality take a back seat in service to the story. There’s information here on daily military life and combat and what would happen “if I were to shoot you on either side of your heart” and a variety of other things that are not quite fully mixed into the blended material out of which the best fiction’s made. It’s like cooking something that requires mixing but not whisking enough, so knots of flour or spice retain their original identity, which can undercut even a good taste in which they’re floating.
Another issue is that the stories’ epiphanic endings are sometimes so implicit that they go beyond Chekhov or poetry and approach, if not emptiness, an open-endedness that can feel like emptiness or arbitrariness. The stories are solemn and portentous (some reviewers have seen humor here, but it’s minimal at best) but feel sometimes thin, as if the agenda were to render surface detail of harrowing circumstance and slow or fast madness and pain and have that be enough.
Klay has done a necessary thing. “Redeployment” is not about Iraqis or Iraq, or the cynical politics of American involvement, or the post-war lives of vets. Its focus is tight and on the ground.
Its final story ends hauntingly with in-country Marines at sun-up on the way to chow, coming suddenly to attention as a flag-draped stretcher is moved out of a building by corpsmen. “Everything was silent, still. All down the road, Marines and sailors had snapped to.” The story then describes the body’s journey, ending with “Everywhere it went, Marines and soldiers and sailors and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen, where the silence, the stillness, would end.”
How can I read that and not feel cold in criticizing? I too am eager for the second coming of “The Things They Carried” for this botched, tragic war – but am I unfairly critical? My advice: read the poetry collection “Here, Bullet” by Army sergeant Brian Turner, or the novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain, or the nonfiction book “War” by Sebastian Junger, and “Redeployment,” and decide about souls for yourself.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.