Sunday, August 28, 2016

61 Books: #40

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–39 are below this post.

40. Phil Klay, Redeployment (2016) (8/28/16)
A killer book of twelve short stories, each one spot on. All are told in the first person, but the narrator is different in each, ranging from Marines newly home after a seven-month deployment to men on the ground in the war zone—but not always in the thick of the action. There's a chaplain, an adjutant (desk jockey), a Foreign Service Officer who ends up getting tasked with teaching Iraqi kids baseball thanks to political machinations back home. There's a Coptic Arab vet trying to explain what it was like to be a Marine in Iraq to a newly converted African-American Muslim at Swarthmore College. There is plenty of anger, confusion, and helplessness, as well as striving to connect, to understand.

I flagged so many passages for their vividness or wisdom or grit or vulnerability, for their ability to explain situations or states of mind or the sheer insanity of war so very well, and I could have flagged many more. Much of what makes the book so compelling is the dialogue. The writing is exceptional.

Like this, an extended sample:

"So here's an experience. Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear. In a city there's a million places they can kill you from. It freaks you out at first. But you go through like you were trained, and it works.
     "In Wilmington, you don't have a squad, you don't have a battle buddy, you don't even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it's not there. You're safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it's not.
     "Instead, you're stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don't want to open it again.
     "Outside, there're people walking around by the windows like it's no big deal. People who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died. People who've spent their whole lives at white.
     "They'll never get even close to orange. You can't, until the first time you're in a firefight, or the first time an IED goes off that you missed, and you realize that everybody's life, everybody's, depends on you not fucking up. And you depend on them.
     "Some guys go straight to red. They stay like that for a while and then they crash, go down past white, down to whatever is lower than 'I don't fucking care if I die.' Most everybody else stays orange, all the time.
     "Here's what orange is. You don't see or hear like you used to. Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block. It's hard to even remember exactly what that felt like. I think you take in too much information to store so you just forget, free up brain space to take in everything about the next moment that might keep you alive. And then you forget that moment, too, and focus on the next. And the next. And the next. For seven months.
     "So that's orange. And then you go shopping in Wilmington, unarmed, and you think you can get back down to white? It'll be a long fucking time before you get down to white."

The stories are peppered with acronyms that generally aren't translated: some of them—IED, LT, PFC, HQ—we all know, but then there's EFPs, EOD tech, CAT team, BCT, JSS, SITREP, CACO, POG, CERP, HEAT trainer, MARPATs, etc., etc. At first I wanted to know what they meant, but eventually they were just part of the landscape, of the experience of being a grunt, and it was only the story that mattered.

Another narrator explains, "There are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can't quite see. Either way, it's the same story." It may be the same story, but Klay manages to spin it a dozen ways, bringing out complexity, humor, irony, anguish, and seeking at every turn.

No wonder this book won the National Book Award. Fully deserved.

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