Reading War: Anthony Swofford’s JARHEAD

Reading War: Anthony Swofford’s JARHEAD

The first time I spoke with an agent, he asked about my memoir manuscript.

“It’s a lot like Jarhead,” I said.

He shook his head. “Every one says that about their war memoir. Don’t say that.”

I don’t use the comparison much anymore, but it’s always on the back of my mind. Probably because Jarhead essentially broke the mold for literary war memoir. Others might be quick to raise their hand and point at Tim O’ Brien’s little-known Vietnam memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zoneas the genre-breaking prototype for contemporary war memoir. And I agree: it was the first to attempt essay collection as memoir. But it was still half-baked in my opinion. I don’t know enough, but my gut tells me it had something to do with not having any contemporaries from which to draw inspiration. It’s usually the first question I ask an author regarding their books: what were you reading when you wrote this book? In O’Brien’s day, creative nonfiction and its stepchild, literary memoir, was still busy being born. There were no Boys of My Youth (Jo Ann Beard) or even In Pharoah’s Army (Wolff, which pushes the form along) from which to draw inspiration. By way of example, consider contemporaries Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War and Herr’s Dispatches: Caputo’s is very much a chronological story, while Herr’s is wild and all over the place. In the time in which O’Brien wrote his war memoir, writers are still stuck on the idea that memoir translates better as fiction (interesting note, Jo Ann Beard’s story “The Fourth State of Matter”, which gave birth to Boys of My Youth, originally ran in the The New Yorker  as short story – it was the only way they could fit that brilliant piece within their strictures of genre.) Point being: O’Brien’s series of linked, memoirist essays, still feels disjointed enough to feel like memoir, but not quite.

Twenty five-odd years later, enter Swofford. Creative nonfiction is booming, memoir is selling like hotcakes. There are plenty of examples to follow, as noted above. And what’s more, Swofford is studying at the most prestigious MFA program in the country, The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he’s surely being exposed to a litany of cutting-edge nonfiction.

Jarhead is Swofford’s account of his time as a Marine during Operation Desert Storm, but the book is much larger than that. Each chapter functions like a stand-alone essay, linked by experience, voice, and easy transition in order to allow the narrator to dwell on one particular aspect of that time of his life without regard for chronology or the expectation that one should begin at the beginning and end at the end.

It’s “THE war memoir,” according to the agent I spoke to that day: the one all other contemporary war memoirs are measured against. I’ve read a lot of them — nearly all of the literary ones — and the book deserves the honor it gets. It sold well, its release date concurrent with the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and what’s more, it’s a remarkable telling of a screwed up human on the edge of the empire that teeters between raw emotion and gut-piercingly beautiful prose. The balance is remarkable, really. So good, some say, that Swofford will have a hard time surpassing it.

I try not to think of the comparisons too much, especially since I’m still working my way through the second draft of my own manuscript. But I’m always keen on drawing at least one lesson from each book I read. A lesson I can explicitly apply in my own work. And I’m not ashamed to say that Jarhead is my standard when it comes to translating war experience into an essay collection as memoir. It taught me a strong lesson in the idea that an essay can disguise itself as chapter, and that because a reader will recognize the comforting and familiar shape of such a thing, it offers a naturally occurring structure for the full exploration of an idea, thought, or theme.


Reading War: Brian Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

Reading War: Brian Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

Note: I published a lengthy review of the book on The Millions, which you can find here.

Early on in the MFA program, I decided my goal was to write a war memoir. It was actually  was less evident to than you might guess — my original plan was an essay collection, but evidently those are difficult to get published as a first time author — but it also made a lot of sense. Technically, the very first thing I ever published was, after all, technically memoir. And by “memoir,” I mean it was an examination of something from my personal history.

The next logical step was to read as much war memoir as possible, which was how I became familiar with Brian Castner. An Air Force EOD veteran of Iraq, he wrote a memoir called The Long Walk (which has since been adapted as an opera) that stuck with me because of its fragmentary nature. It was willfully disorienting, the fragmentation a clear representation of a mind at search for a thread while weaving in and out of traumatic experiences. It reminded me, and quite a few others, of Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Castner’s second book, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer, is much different. Brian is also a freelance journalist with a fistful of longform/narrative nonfiction pieces, and the book is much more in the vein of reportage. By design, he’s told me, although I argued in my review that he as narrator is central enough to earn a “memoir” as a label as well.

In an MFA program like mine, you read a lot of nonfiction that weaves reportage and essay. Leslie Jameson, Eula Biss, John McPhee: these are just a tiny few who build narratives from both in-depth research and thoughtful reflection. In fact, modern creative nonfiction owes much to The New Journalism that erupted in the 60s from writers like Didion, Wolfe, and Gay. But once you narrow the lens to something like the idea of reading things written by veterans, well the list gets short. Really short. So while Castner’s second book was certainly beautifully written, it was also helpful and inspiring to see a fellow vet out there working the creative side and the journalism side.

Memoir, of course, requires a certain amount of research, even if it only consists of reaching into the depths of our memories to recall the who and where. But there’s something to the idea of dipping in and out, as the narrator in All the Ways does. One minute, we’re in his head, at his friend’s funeral. The next, we’re inside the head of a drone pilot. It taught me the value of the reporter’s skill of information gathering – of noticing in that particular habit of picking up stones to see what lies underneath. It’s a skill   foreign to me that, thankfully, Castner nails in the book.

Note: If you’re reading this in Anchorage or Juneau, you have the opportunity to interact with Brian Castner at one of several events next week. On Friday, 10 Mar at the Juneau Public Library, he will give a talk before leading a writing workshop the next day, again in Juneau. On Sunday, 12 Mar, I will moderate a discussion between Brian and and Alaska author Don Rearden at 49th State Brewery at 7pm. I hope to see you there. 




Reading War: Ben Busch’s Dust to Dust

Dust_to_DustIt was mid afternoon in Djibouti, and I was asleep in my room. The doldrums – purgatory of the time in between when you’ve handed off responsibilities to your replacement and now await airlift home. Time I filled with books and writing. I awoke from the nap, startled, grabbed my keyboard, and wrote from my back with haste before full consciousness stole the inspiration. It wasn’t much, maybe 250 words that fell from my fingertips to the screen in less than five minutes. Hardly War and Peace.

But when I finally took a breath and asked myself, what the hell was that, I already knew the answer. It was Dust to Dust, Ben Busch’s memoir of war and much more, that crept into the fabric of my subconscious and inspired. Books, good ones especially, can be like that. That sense of wonder, as if a veil has been lifted for you, page by page.

Dust to Dust opened my eyes to what is possible in a war memoir, and explored the possibility that a memoir only of war is probably the most untruthful way to write about Iraq and Afghanistan. They were, after all, wars to which we went, and returned from, only to do it again and again and again until the lines between war and home blurred and were lost to us.

The book’s cover doesn’t even chase the term “war memoir,” which is also an honest thing, since it’s a memoir in which war appears but doesn’t drive the narrative. It’s a much larger story whose narrative arc begins with childhood and moves forward and back with regard  only for fragments of scene that match the theme. Speaking of which, Busch does something interesting with the overall structure of the memoir, something I hadn’t yet seen. Busch’s narrator evaluates his life through elemental lenses – things like water, dust, fire, etc. It’s a novel approach in a memoir, worth emulation.

There’s a particular scene in the book, one in which Busch describes his mother’s last moments. It’s one of the heartbreaking and gorgeous scenes I’ve ever read. But what’s most remarkable about it is that the narrator doesn’t tell you how to feel. He makes you feel it through reflective detail in the scene. I don’t want to spoil the moment – you really do need to read it for yourself – but I will never look at rain on a windowpane the same way. It’s a technique employed over and over throughout the book, and a hallmark of a worthwhile literary memoir. The best authors know exactly how to construct a scene from memory in order to convey the emotion felt. It’s not about saying, “I was sad;” but rather, making the reader feel the sadness by magnifying the elements of what one remembers.

Evocative detail – it’s something strong throughout Dust to Dust

And what about that essay, the one that I woke me with a sense of urgency inspired by what I was reading? Well, I’m happy to report that The Normal School, a journal in love with the essay, picked it up a few months ago. It should publish sometime next year. I guess I owe Ben a beer when we meet.

Buy it here.