Maybe the best way to get at the truth about war is to read fiction. Klay’s collection of stories shows us just how that might be true, for he comes at aspects of the Iraq war from unique angles: PsyOps, Chaplain, corpse corps, infantry, artillery. He must fuse the experience of many into these snapshots, giving us both an unreal picture, but one that is strangely more real than any other. What cannot be clearer is that we have to be very sure of our motives when we place men and women in harm’s way. Otherwise the bargain—one life for the many—is off.
Klay has a remarkable gift. I felt completely in his hands and he turned me this way and that, one moment laughing, the next cringing. My bullshit radar seemed disabled.
I don’t really know why I read so much about war. Perhaps because it is the thing that tears away all coverings and reveals us as we really are. Lots of people experience war but not that many can convey that moment when it changes one. Klay is able to capture those moments. Those moments are mined, for they are deeply stored and not often held to the light. Most folks can’t even find those moments, let alone articulate them. So Klay’s got a bit of PsyOps happening there. I’m not sure I envy him that skill, that knowledge.
It is difficult to pick a favorite story but the relief I got from the funny one in the middle, “Money As a Weapons System,” makes me choose that one. In it, our narrator is a Foreign Service officer in charge of reconstruction. He confronts the absurd both in the abstract and in the flesh: a strange collection of folks have been assembled to fulfill head office policy directives and they are doing it…to the letter. The policies sounded good, but when confronted with the realities on the ground, they maybe don’t work so well.
In “OIF,” the economy of abbreviations gives a racing, manic, juddering feel to the story…and we are running headlong off a cliff. For a mere seven pages we are not just reading, but immersed in the hyper atmosphere and not-completely-clear thinking of folks who get shot at every day.
In the very first story, "Redeployment," is a quote that had me gulping in recognition: "And glad as I was to be in the States, and even though I hated the past seven months and the only thing that kept me going was the Marines I served with and the thought of coming come, I started feeling like I wanted to go back. Because fuck all this." To tell the truth, this isn't war-talk. This is leaving-home-talk. It's real and it cinches our connection with the author. He's got the goods, tells the truth, and we understand that.
In “Bodies,” Klay writes “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.” Klay gives us both in this collection, sometimes both in the same story. Our nineteen-year-old narrator comes home and visits his former high-school girlfriend still living in her parent’s basement. The inchoate longing for connection is physically painful.
Klay has the talent to write about anything at all. In “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” he writes about school and banking and law in NYC. We believe him. We believe in him. I am curious what he will do next.
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