Hot Link: Luke Mogelson Dispatch from Iraq

Oh Well (2) by Lydia Komatsu

“Oh Well (2)” courtesy of Lydia Komatsu

Once in a while, someone writes a piece of war reportage that will stand the test. The stars have to align perfectly — the right material, a friendly editor willing to deal with obscene word count, a lack of stronger competition within the issue itself — all this and more are the backstory to the most important pieces in the war writing canon. I’m talking about pieces like “M,” John Sack’s 33,000 word shot from Vietnam for Esquire, or John Hersey’s 30,000 word “Hiroshima” for The New Yorker. Even Mark Bowden’s original series of 29 (!) articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer that later became Blackhawk Down 

In the current fight against ISIS, the narrative no longer belongs to the U.S. military. Not in any meaningful way, anyway. That story belongs to the Iraqis who are putting it on the line.  Luke Mogelson bet 20,000 words on it, and I’d argue, hit the jackpot. I haven’t read a piece like this in a really long time. For you writers out there, pay close attention to Mogelson’s narrative stance: how he begins as a journalist, but ends with far more complicity. The strain is palpable in the writing. This is a piece you’re going to want to carve off some time, and some place quiet, to read this one:  The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS – The New Yorker.

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: Matt Gallagher’s YOUNGBLOOD

Reading War: Matt Gallagher’s YOUNGBLOOD

Note: I reviewed Youngblood for Foreign Policy last year. If you’re interested in that take, which had to conform to Tom Ricks’ lethal editorial pen, you can view it here.

I had room to cram two books into the survival ruck I jumped onto the Polar Icecap last year. One of them was Matt Gallagher‘s debut novel Youngblood (I’ll get to that other one in another post.) I’d begun the book a few weeks earlier, so it was a bit of a risky move to bring a half-read book knowing I might be stuck on the Beaufort Sea for longer than expected. But I owed a review, and Gallagher is a damn fine writer, so it made sense on a lot of levels. The gamble paid off, big time.

In the space of one claustrophobic and very cold afternoon, I tore through the rest of the book. And cutting right to the chase: it was the Iraq novel I’d been waiting for.

Now, feel free to take all this with a grain of salt. I am, after all, a nonfiction writer, which means the lion’s share of my reading is nonfiction. But story is story. The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)Redeployment (Phil Klay): they all filled a need. Namely, the desire to clear a guilty conscience. Respectively: the individual soldier’s, a nation’s, and the outsider’s. I take nothing away from each of those excellent books. They were necessary. The writing was outstanding. But they were also well, kind of depressing. 

Youngblood, by contrast, is best described as vibrant. It’s a technicolor story, complete with engrossing action and heartstopping literary value. Having met Gallagher now, and read just about everything he’s written, there’s a lot of the guy I had the pleasure of sharing a couple of drinks with in Youngblood. Which is not to say it isn’t a serious book — it is — but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

The basic premise is Iraq sometime during the Surge. Lt Jack Porter stumbles upon information about a troublesome NCO assigned to him, which leads Jack down an ill-advised investigative path that will twist and turn him on a plot line like something out of a hardboiled detective novel. Oh, and there’s that war-thing going on as well. And that’s about all I’m willing to share with you, because I want you to pick up a copy and read it for yourself.

I’d, of course read Kaboom, Gallagher’s memoir. So I was familiar with his wit, ability to turn a pretty phrase, and capacity for laugh-out-loud humor. But with Youngblood, you can sense Gallagher at a blank canvas, creating a world grounded by experience but broadened by creativity. What I took away from the book was a lesson in storytelling on the extended arc that a novel requires. Writing essays, longform, memoir, it took me a few years to come to grips with the idea that a writer must answer the pesky question, “what’s this about?”Not what happens — that much will be evident — but the thing that changes, the question that is answered, and so on. You must be able to answer the question as the author, or the reader will never have snowball’s chance in hell. That essay I’ve written about previous, “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade”: it wasn’t until I’d already begun submitting that I realized I’d written a lot of pretty sentences, compelling scene and assembled an interesting structure. But I couldn’t tell you what it was about. Once I decided that it was about the process of grief and memory, it made things a whole lot easier. I was able to dial things up here, eliminate dead weight there, so that once the reader hit the last sentence, they would be able to answer the question (I hope, anyway.)

One one hand, short stories and essays are disadvantaged by what must be an economical approach. A couple thousand words goes by pretty fast and you have to get to the point. Novels like Youngblood have the luxury of time and length to get the reader there. But the flip side of this is that length is no cure for inefficient and bloated writing. We’ve all been there, laboring through an extraneous chapter, wondering when we’re gonna get to the good stuff. But Youngblood had none of that. Gallagher keeps the story tight, clipping along, to the point that backstory feels less like a side-trip than it does a necessary pause.

So, there you go. Turns out novels can be good for your nonfiction. Especially if the novel you’re looking at for inspiration just so happens to be Youngblood.