Iraq Through a Prism


Title: Redeployment

Rating: 4 Stars

Having some time ago finished The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which was an absolutely brilliant set of short stories about the Vietnam War, I began to wonder if there was an equivalent for the Iraq War. Redeployment appeared to be the closest candidate, so I gave it a shot. The bad news is that I didn’t find it as strong as The Things They Carried. The good news is that it was still pretty damn good.

Unlike O’Brien’s collection, which really seemed to be tinged with a sense of the nearly autobiographical, Klay’s stories are clearly fiction. Each of the dozen or so stories are told from a different point of view. You view the war as a private on patrol in an MRAP. You view it as a soldier that collected the remains of dead soldiers. You view it as a chaplain. You view it as a soldier in an artillery crew. You view it as a psych ops officer. You view it as a civilian in Iraq to help the reconstruction. There are a couple of stories of soldiers coming home and trying to adjust. Each of these stories open a different viewport into the war.

O’Brien’s collections was that rarity where every story was strong. Here, the stories are more of a mixed bag.

Money as a Weapons System is the story of a civilian sent in to help re-build Iraq. Here you get the Catch-22 nature of the Iraq War. He wants to do the right thing, but the government, the army, and the Iraqis themselves pretty much prevent that from happening. He wants to rebuild their water supply but just ends up having to pretend to have formed an Iraqi baseball team to please some congressman’s benefactor. This is the dark humor of unwieldy bureaucracies colliding in a place where solutions are impossible.

Frago is a raid of a suspected Al Qaeda house that goes wrong. As the house is getting cleared, a favorite Corporal is severely wounded. Also, as they go deeper into the house, they come upon a torture scene of two men bound to chairs, horrible beaten and crippled. The fresh Lieutenant has trouble coping. Members of the injured Corporal’s team are barely functional. In this story, the narrator is the Sargent. He has to be alert to everything and be responsive to the needs of the team. He has to know when to tell the dirty joke to lighten the mood and when to gently help a distraught private eat his ice cream. This is a deeply affecting story of the horrors that a team on patrol regularly must face during their deployment.

Sometimes I forget how young soldiers really are. These are men and women that face extreme hardship and need strong emotional resilience, but so many of them are only nineteen or twenty years old. In the story After Action Report, one of the soldiers who has just killed his first man (actually a boy), tries to escape his pain through endless hours of playing Pokemon. It just seems so unfair to them to ask to sacrifice so much. There’s simply no way that you can come back from some of those experiences unscarred, be it emotionally or physically

Especially in the early stories, there is a heavy reliance upon acronyms and jargon. It’s used to highlight the foreignness of the Iraq War. They are Americans fighting this war, but they are Americans that nearly have a language of their own. While I understood that, it did make for rough reading.

The stories also seemed to have a bit of an emotional distance. Perhaps Klay is still working on his craft and trying to draw so many characters was just a little too much for him. In too many of the stories, instead of feeling drawn to the character, I felt as if the character was just a straw man built to bring out another dimension of the Iraq War.

I found this to be an effective, affective collection, but it does not seem that this will be the definitive final literary word on the Iraq War.


A Few Scant Words About A Hypergraphic


Title: Joe Gould’s Teeth

Rating: 2 Stars

This has all of the makings of a great story. First of all, there is Joe Gould himself. He was a legendary, colorful, mysterious Greenwich Village character from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. He was known as a raconteur. He was allegedly writing an oral history of immense size. He walked around with copy books, incessantly writing in them (Lepore actually believes him to be suffering from hypergraphia). He gave volumes of writings to various friends and benefactors. He had literary friends such as E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Edmund Wilson that believed in him and tried to get him published. He had fairly serious mental problems, was constantly on the edge of homelessness, and spent time in various mental hospitals. Although not clear, ultimately he appeared to die in a hospital after a stew of electro-shock, possible lobotomy, and doses of psychotropic drugs. It’s truly a tale of a possible lost, misunderstood genius.

And then you have Joseph Mitchell, yet another New York character. He was Jimmy Breslin before there was Jimmy Breslin. For decades, he was a journalist for various New York papers. He hung around the edges of society and wrote about people that no one else wrote about. He consorted with strippers, bartenders, gamblers, and gave them a voice that they never had before. He was a Runyonesque character that served as the pattern and inspiration of every following New York journalist.

Their paths collide in the early 1940’s when Mitchell wrote a profile of Gould called Professor Seagull. Gould was called Professor Seagull because he had a habit of flapping his arms and squawking, which in hindsight apparently are symptoms of autism. The profile gave Gould a measure of fame. Whatever goodwill that might have been gained by this fame was pretty much squandered by Gould by his strange behavior, public drunkenness, and never ending requests for money.

Later, after Gould died in the late 1950’s, Mitchell set off in search of Gould’s oral history. By the time of his death, it should have consisted of many hundreds of volumes. Gould always wanted it to be published after his death and that it would change the entire concept of what a history is.

Mitchell searched high and low for it. Finally, he came to the reluctant conclusion that the oral history never existed. He believed that Gould, despite his incessant writing in his copy books, really had a massive case of writer’s block. He wrote a second piece about Gould describing this search called Joe Gould’s Secret, which was much acclaimed.

Mitchell wrote this book in 1964. Interestingly enough, Mitchell continued to go to work every day at The New Yorker for another thirty years after he wrote that piece (well into his nineties). Before that time, he was remarkably prolific. After, for the following thirty year period of time, he didn’t write another significant story.

Mitchell, after accusing Gould of a multi-decade case of writer’s block, proceeded to himself experience a multi-decade case of writer’s block.

Isn’t that a great story? Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone like a Erik Larson or a David Grann or a Laura Hillebrand would dive into the details of this period and these characters and piece together exactly what that happened?

Unfortunately, instead we have this book. As far as I can tell, it was written over a very short period of time as an exercise for Lepore’s grad students. She finds original sources, but then barely even talks about them. She finds hospitals where Gould might have stayed, but then barely even gets information out of them. She finds evidence of a curious relationship with an African American sculptor (Augusta Savage), but discovers little about their relationship. It truly appears that Gould’s last years could have been harrowing and possibly could have served a larger purpose of describing the horrifying state of mid century mental health care in America, but even that seems to have been give short shrift.

The research here is so shallow it’s dismaying.