Friday, June 25, 2010

Trout and Amputations

Dipping back into my Iraq journal, I find the entry for today was both humorous and horrific.  It's a balance I'm trying to achieve in Fobbit itself.  Browsing my diary from five years ago, it's easy to see the genesis of the novel.

June 25, 2005:  Someone with a sense of humor has hung a sign outside his hooch: “House for Rent.”

* * * * *

I walk into the dining facility for dinner tonight and am hit with a wall of musky fish stink.  It’s seafood night at the Rock of the Marne Sports Oasis (the fancy name they’ve slapped on our chow hall): boiled lobster, fried shrimp and something called  “Trout Almodene.”  The fish fillets are sizzling on the grill normally reserved for hamburgers and they look fresh and good.  The Filipino cook in the white hat scoops one up with a spatula and deposits it on my plate.  I look down at the pinkish slab of trout meat and immediately get a vision of myself standing calf-deep in a cold Montana river—the Madison River, in particular.  My fly rod is bent in an arc, I strip in line, a cutthroat flips its way through the shallows toward me.  I think of how I take that trout home, gut it, fillet it, bread it, grill it and savor its sweet succulence on my tongue.
I sit down at a table in the DFAC, sink my fork into the “Trout Almodene” and put it in my mouth.  I nearly spit it back out onto the plate.  It tastes like canal water, like sewage mud, like the fatty, oily carp that swim in the piss-colored water just outside the front door of the DFAC.  This is no mountain trout.  I doubt it’s even trout at all.
On my way back to my hooch, I pause on the bridge spanning the canal and take a quick head count of the carp below.  I could be wrong, but it seems to me that their numbers have dwindled.

* * * * *

Yesterday, we got a report of two soldiers injured in an IED attack.  They were in a convoy, which means they were supposed to be cocooned within the womb of uparmor—and this makes their injuries all the more distressing.  One guy had both legs severed.  The other one, a sergeant first class like me, lost both legs and an arm.
A few hours later, we learn the triple-amputee has died.  I can’t think of him as a person, only a horrific vision of three sliced-off limbs, the stumps pumping blood onto the street, his life draining at an alarming rate.  I don’t even see his face.  Just those bloody stumps.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From the Diary of Chance Gooding Jr. (an excerpt)

Throughout Fobbit, I've sprinkled excerpts from the diary of my character Chance Gooding Jr., a hardcore Fobbit, through and through.  Earlier in the novel, I described how Gooding never really wanted to be a soldier, but a writer instead ("Someone like John Cheever or Raymond Carver or the great F. Scott F.  But without all the drinking and early death.").

This morning, I spent a couple of hours working over this portion of Gooding's diary and am moderately pleased with the results:
Early morning.  Another Groundhog Day in Iraq breaks across the horizon like an egg on a hot skillet.

I run. I take up a light jog, traveling down the dirt service road that passes in front of the chow hall (where I can smell them baking the crème pies for today’s lunch), onto the paved road that follows the shore of Z Lake.  Bats swoop overhead, and a childhood memory passes through my head: my parents hosting a barbecue in the back yard, this must have been back in the 60s because my mother’s hair was shellacked and swirled into a little mini-tower on her head—so fashionable!—and my father was still in his sweater-vest phase.  They’re all sitting on lawn chairs, scraps of rib bones on paper plates at their feet, cocktails in sweating glasses in their hands, and everyone is laughing about a joke someone just made about Bobby Kennedy, the light draining from the sky as the laughter fades, and then there are bats, bats everywhere!, flickering pieces of dark confetti, and my mother screams because one of the bats—faulty radar, evidently—has flown into her hair-tower and now the dirty little wings are flapping against her forehead, and she screams, “Chance! Chance! Chance!”  My father staggers to his feet, but doesn’t make a move to help my mother.  He laughs, cruelly, as the wings slap my mother’s face.

These are the precious moments which spangle a writer’s childhood.  Until I joined the Army and went to war (wow, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write!), my life was pretty unremarkable.  But I tried to capture scraps of memory—my father’s harsh, barking laughter, for instance—and set them down in a document which I’ve tentatively titled “My Life and How I Lived It.”

I run the perimeter of Z Lake, thinking about a short story I wrote years ago, shortly after my wife divorced me, a semi-autobiographical tale which, in my humble opinion, somebody like Raymond Carver or even John Updike would be proud to call their own, a story which began:

Nine months after Wanda Sue left him for a cowboy who’d just broken his back in a rodeo, Charlie enlisted in the Army.  In the wake of the divorce, he’d gone through an alcoholic period, drinking a bottle of wine each night as far as it could take him.  Then, sure as a cold slap of water, he’d pulled himself out of the tailspin, thought about his crossroads, and made an appointment with a recruiter in the strip mall.

I think about how my own ex-wife, Yolanda, had shown up at my door two nights before I shipped out, driving to Georgia all the way from Reno in what she later said was a sentimental weakness, and invited herself in.  I think about how she stood there and said she couldn’t fucking believe I was actually going to war and how, even though we’d been broken up for nearly ten years now and she’d had two husbands in the meantime, she would worry about me every day.  I think about how one thing led to another.  I think about how I unbuttoned her shirt and how I then buried myself in the familiar valley between her breasts, hiccupping with sobs.  The tears came because I was afraid of dying from al-Qaeda bullets, and because I was shocked with joy at Yo’s generosity, and because I hadn’t had sex with anyone but myself for more than three years.

Scenes like that—all good fodder for my novel-to-be.

As I run around the lake, I try not to breathe too deeply or stir the dusty sand too much with my feet.  It’s unbearable over here, like walking into a hot attic that hasn’t been swept in years.

The dawn air hangs like a miasma over the FOB, carrying with it something that smells like deep-fried tires, dog shit, and month-old bananas.  If I take too much of it into my throat and lungs, I’ll start gagging.  It’s still early but already hot, the oxygen thick in my weak Fobbit lungs.

I run.  There is a scarf of gray smoke, at least three miles in length, hanging low over the city.  The lake laps softly against the reeds on my right.  I think about Saddam and his cronies crouched here on the banks, rifles cocked, waiting for the servants to start beating the brush a half-mile away, scaring the wild boars in their direction.  Were the bats also under his dictatorial sway?  Did they nip the insects from the air around his face, clearing a sting-free zone for his imperial visage?  My mouth open and panting, I pass through small clouds of those same bugs and I start choking and spitting.

The sun isn’t even over the horizon and it’s already scorching the earth.  I suck hot air and bugs into my lungs.  It’s like I put my lips over the muzzle of a hair dryer.  Between the gnats and the hot-lung air, I feel like cutting the run short, sneaking back to my hooch after only a half-mile, cheating myself out of a better score on the semi-annual PT test.  But then I hear the scuff of approaching feet from behind me.  A tubby officer I recognize from another brigade—a chaplain, I think—passes me, all glistening sweat, swollen stomach, and Aqua-Velva.  “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya,” he calls out.  His gray Army T-shirt ripples with fat.  Between breaths, I grunt a “Morning, sir.”  With great effort, he digs deep and kicks into a sprint, leaving me behind in no time.  He must have smelled the crème pies back at the chow hall.

I decide to press on, waste as much time as possible circling Saddam’s alphabetical lake.  I’m due at the palace in an hour, but I try to push it off as long as possible.  Just more of the same waiting for me at the cubicle: churning out more tree-killing reams of press releases for jolly ol’ Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad.

The division task force is now heavily engaged in an offensive against the terrorists, called Operation Squeeze Play.  I should mention that a tactical operation is not a tactical operation until it has been christened with a code word.  There are entire offices in the Pentagon and here in Iraq whose job it is to sit around and come up with clever names like Operation Righteous Fury or Operation Coffin Nail.  Once, during cold and flu season, one of our brigade commanders came up with Operation Influenza and Operation Barking Cough.

Not long ago, I read a Washington Post article talking about this practice of name-branding modern war.  Here’s part of what the article said (it’s too perfect not to eventually include it in my novel somehow):

In Iraq and Afghanistan, most operation names are for relatively small missions--hunting for insurgents or weapons caches--many of which are named by low-ranking field officers who have little time or inclination to worry about public scrutiny.  The names they choose range from the ominous (Operation Black Typhoon) to the curious (Operation Tangerine Squeeze) to the mysterious (Operation Soprano Sunset--something to do with the fat lady singing, perhaps?).

When Army Capt. Jim Page of the 101st Airborne Division was tasked with nicknaming a training exercise before the invasion of Iraq--even practice runs get a moniker--he borrowed from the unit's hallowed history, adding a little modern spice for young soldiers.

The result, Operation Bastogne Smackdown, awkwardly combined a heroic World War II battle and the glossy shtick of cable TV wrestling, but it "sounded cool," he said.  And it took with the rank and file, who soon were joking about how they were going to "layeth the smacketh down."

Now it’s summer and so the operation-namers in Task Force-Baghdad Headquarters are commemorating it with baseball-themed titles (Operation Babe Ruth, Operation Khadhimiya Shortstop, Operation Home Plate).  At last count, we’d rounded up more than 400 bad guys in two days thanks to Operation Squeeze Play.  Of course, not all of them are guilty of crimes—there is a certain amount of collateral damage when we make these raids and trap insurgents in our net, sometimes we pick up a few innocents along the way…to whom we later apologize and send on their merry way.  Yesterday alone, I put out three press releases on Squeeze Play and the media started calling when they read that one raid on a house in Mansour turned up $6 million in cash—stacks and stacks and stacks of $100 U.S. bills. I had pictures—unreleasable and stored on my hard drive—of American soldiers grinning and pointing at the loot.  By the end of the day, I was exhausted, having spent the entire time going back and forth from my computer answering media queries via e-mail and being interviewed on the phone.  Most days, it’s like running on a treadmill.  And every day is the same.  Groundhog Day redux.

I round the lake and start my second lap.  Sparrows the color of dust flit around my feet, mourning doves coo above my head in the trees.  Behind me, somewhere in the city’s northeast sector, an IED explosion shivers the morning air.  The dust-colored birds take flight and flee the area.  I run faster, the air cooling by degrees as I go.

The thud of the explosion makes me think of my first introduction to what life would be like over here.  Minutes after we landed in Kuwait, we were herded into a large briefing tent.  The wind outside sucked at the walls, making them billow in and out like the tent itself was breathing.  We all stuck close to each other, shuffling along in quiet, orderly lines which snaked all around the tent.  Our ID cards were swiped on an electronic machine which emitted a green light and a beep, indicating that, yes, we were officially logged into the system as new arrivals.  We were directed to sit on wooden benches, then we were lectured for two hours on financial benefits, the all-hours availability of the chaplain who was ready to discuss anything no matter how trivial or silly we thought it might be (coveting thy neighbor's night-vision goggles, for instance), the supreme importance of personal hygiene and a detailed PowerPoint presentation on how to spot IEDs.  At the end of the two hours, the Welcome-to-War staff played a video greeting from the Corps Commander who said, in the most stone-sober voice, “Make no mistake about it, Soldier, when you stepped off the plane, you were in a combat zone—even here in Kuwait.  We’re in a danger zone even right now.  Look around you.  Threats lurk everywhere.  You must rehearse, recon, and pull security whenever crossing a danger area.  The enemy is smart, he is wily, he is adaptive.  He can—and will—change his tactics at a moment’s notice.  We’ve learned a lot from him in these past two years.  The enemy we faced at the start of 2004 is not the same enemy we faced six months ago and that enemy is not the same one we deal with today.  We must be flexible in our defensive posture.  IEDs can be behind rocks, in boxes, bags, soda cans, trash, dead animals and empty MRE cases.  For your safety and the good order and discipline of the Corps, each of you must have a battle buddy wherever you go.”

Well guess what, General Ding-Dong?  The battle-buddy rule has been blatantly ignored since we arrived in Baghdad.  We’re all on different schedules, working clock-busting shifts, and no one wants to wait for a “buddy” to be available when they have to take a crap, or grab a quick dinner, or go on an early-morning run like this.  The relative security of the FOB has made us relax the sphincter a little bit.  We honestly don’t see the need to buddy-up around here.

All well and good, but then something happens and soon you start re-thinking the definition of words like caution and battle buddies.

Take this morning, for instance.  I’m rounding the final corner of the lake when a pickup truck swerves into sight, the back loaded with Local Nationals in blue jumpsuits.  These are the gardeners, the janitors, the cooks, the brick-layers, the road crews who’ve applied for special permits to work on FOB Triumph and who go through a two-hour security screening at the checkpoint every morning before they’re delivered to their work stations across the camp.  The men sway back and forth in the bed of the truck.  No one looks anyone else in the eye, no one speaks.

The pickup barrels down the dirt road toward me.  Through the dusty windshield, I can see the driver’s white knuckles clenching the steering wheel.  My imagination spins and I don’t like the way that truck is swerving.  All at once, I’m convinced those Iraqis have smuggled weapons past the guards at the checkpoints.  Yes, they have that look about them.  Shifty, no-good bastards.  I picture them raising their AK-47s and firing in my direction.  I cannot dodge fast enough.  I take a bullet in my thigh and crumple to the ground.  I have the good sense to roll off the road, down the bank and into the lake.  The water is hot and slimy against my bare legs.  I hide among the reeds, bleeding into the water, until I think they’ve gone.  If they come after me, beating the reeds to find my body, I will lie still as death, praying they don’t pump another round of bullets into my body.  The water laps against me like a hot, salty tongue.  When I finally rise from the lake and get back on the road, I take off my PT shirt and tie a tourniquet around my leg.  I wonder how long it will be before another morning jogger makes his way to this side of the lake.  Maybe it will be one of those female finance clerks—the blonde one in particular, who wasn’t half-bad looking and, I’m certain, gave me a wink when I went to the cashier’s cage to withdraw some advance pay last week—and she will come bouncing along with her friend, the brunette (camp regulations mandate that females always travel in pairs, for us males it’s only “highly encouraged”).  They might not even see my bleeding leg at first and I will have to wave them down, catch their attention somehow; maybe I’ll even have to do a fake-faint there in the middle of the road.  But eventually they’ll have to stop, right?  And they’ll ooo-and-ahh when they see the blood-pulsing wound and they’ll bend down over me, the brunette applying steady pressure while the blonde gives me mouth to mouth.   If I’m lucky, she’ll slip me a little tongue.

The truck passes in a swirl of dust and the Local Nationals stare back at me with dead expressions that are neither hostile nor happy, just dead.

I choke on the truck dust, embarrassed by my fantasies, but relieved that I’m still alive to write about them.

I run, rounding the final stretch of the road toward my hooch.  My legs are not bleeding, but they do ache with the eight miles they have just lapped around the lake.  Kingfishers call from their perch in the lakeside trees, as if taunting me, then take off across the water, swooping in swags of flight.  They follow me all the way back to my hooch, mocking me with sing-song trills until I find a couple of loose pebbles to fire in their direction.

Endorphins pumping, I get all Biblical for a moment.  Consider the sparrows: what have they got to worry about?  It’s not like they have to spend the next 14 hours pecking out press releases that no one will read.

Yes, the Fobbit life is a hard one.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no enemy mortar…but I shall tremble at the thought of paper cuts.

Pity the Fobbit.  His life here in the Shire is unbearable with the oppression of buzzing fluorescent lights and the torment of idiotic staff officers who believe in the Good Idea Fairy.

I just hope they don’t run out of crème pies at the chow hall today.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Novella Month review: "Brazil" by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Jesse Lee Kercheval’s novella Brazil is an offbeat, thrilling journey into the heart of America—assuming, that is, that heart is the mermaid tank at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida. Or maybe it’s the “world’s largest carousel” in the House on the Rock, a bizarre architectural wonder cum museum of curiosities. Or, perhaps, you’ll find that heart at Wilma’s World of Dolls in Wisconsin.

In any case, America—if it even exists—is both the idea and the place at the center of this road-trip novel which briskly follows a May-December couple on their quest from Miami to Wisconsin and all heartland stops in between.

In celebration of Novella Month, I’ve committed myself to reading a few choice contemporary American short novels. I’m currently working my way through Josh Weil’s impeccably beautiful The New Valley and will try to post my thoughts on that at a later date. But my first stop was Kercheval’s Brazil—and I couldn’t have picked a better example of everything that’s right with current American fiction. This is the kind of writing that crackles with energy from the very first pages when 19-year-old Paulo meets woman-of-a-certain-age Claudia in a Miami bar:
I took the drink….and went to sit at the bar, which was made of glass bricks and underlit so that all the people sitting at it looked ghastly or exciting, depending on your mood.

She sat next to me. In the mirror, she looked thin and rich, a woman with dark hair and eyes as brown as mine, although hers were raccooned with mascara. She was wearing a black dress so simple it had to be expensive and silver earrings like needles. Pretty good, but pretty old, in her forties somewhere. Almost as old as my mother. She looked me over in the mirror too, steadily, as if the mirror was where I really was.
As we come to learn, Paulo is a very reflective young man, desperately wanting a stable home life--an American domesticity which always eludes him. Paulo works as a bellboy in the Royale Palms hotel—the same hotel where he was raised by his mother after his Brazilian father abandoned him as a baby.
The last time he came I was two, and sometimes I think I can almost remember him. I have this memory of something white, like a terry cloth bathrobe, moving back and forth in front of the bars of my crib, sort of like the way they used to show Jesus in the old movies, all hem and no face.
Paulo lives a stationary transient life—that is, one in a hotel whose other tenants are always in flux. Add to the mix the fact that he’s “half-Brazilian” and he is a boy without a country. More than anything, he says, he wants to be normal. But he won’t find it—at least not in the pages of this book.

As a hormone-turbulent teenager who dropped out of community college after he caught his girlfriend cutting his best friend’s hair (a sure sign of foreplay, in Paulo’s estimation), he’s a cast-adrift youth—a ripe fruit fit for plucking by someone like Claudia with her raccoon-mascara eyes. A Hungarian refugee temporarily estranged from her husband, Claudia is also a drifter looking for purpose…and redemption for past mistakes. She hires Paulo to drive her north in her 1988 black BMW and thus begins one of the oddest, most charming relationships since Harold met Maude.

They set off to look for America and find it in Hershey bars, Weeki Wachee mermaids, cocaine, and shopping malls. They also find grace, love, and forgiveness--unexpected gifts from unlikely strangers.  Set in 1988, Brazil is candy-coated with all the Reagan-era signposts: drugs, sex, conspicuous consumption and, of course, Miami Vice (whose Don Johnsonian fantasies fuel Paulo as much as the nose-snow). Like that TV series, Kercheval’s novella is sleek, sexy and very exciting all the way to its final, shattering sentence.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Father's Day essay at Literary Mama

Literary Mama has just published an older essay of mine, "The Tangle River," in honor of Father's Day.  It's a genuine thrill to be published at the site ("Reading for the Maternally Inclined") which normally only accepts material from writers who are mothers.  Once a year, however, they open it up to men and their work for a special Father's Day issue.  "The Tangle River" is one of the most deeply-personal pieces of non-fiction I've ever written.

So, years later, when my father came to Alaska for a visit and we camped along the banks of the Tangle River, I strung up my rod without saying a word, unsure how to act around him as he busied himself with his gear. He'd begun planning this trip six months earlier, when five tons of snow lay heavy on the waters and the fish slumbered beneath the ice.

There was unmistakable tension between us. After all, I'd entered Paradise before him. I'd moved to Fairbanks in the dead of winter seven months before my father's visit and already I'd cut holes in the ice of Harding Lake and pulled warm trout from the dark water below. Several times that spring, I'd haunted the shores of that same lake, gently assassinating the fish who came to feed at the edge of the ice during breakup. And then there was the early-season salmon trip to Montana Creek, which I didn't even have the heart to mention to my father during our long-distance phone conversations. His voice was already distorted with jealousy. The forty-five-pound king I wrestled out of Montana would surely break his spirit.

But now here he was, on the banks of the Tangle River and bristling like a child on Christmas Eve.

"Take it easy, Dad," I said. "We've got all day and most of the night."

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he said, blowing on the drab fly to fluff the hackle. Nervous spittle from his mouth clung to the tips of the elk hairs.

His fishing vest bulged with nail clippers, hooks, coiled tippets, and enough flies to make him look like a wild fur-and-feather beast. He said his new graphite rod cost more than $400 and by the amount of time he spent attaching the reel and fitting the sections together, I saw he was determined to get his money's worth.

Finally, he said in a voice that chimed like bells, "Let's go hit the water."

You can read the entire essay here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Soup and Salad: Bloomsday, Books o' Millions, War for Art's Sake, Computerized Typewriters

On today's menu:

1.   Another year, another Bloomsday, another nagging reminder that I haven't read Ulysses.  I suspect a good percentage of all the bloomin' revelers today haven't, either.  But do I get props for reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Dead?

2.  There are any number of websites which will "suggest" books for you to read (Goodreads, LibraryThing, and Shelfari among them), but the new one launched by The Millions can be particularly addictive.  Click on a book cover and it will not only give you information about the book, but also links to Millions articles referencing the title.  Keep refreshing the main page and new book covers will pop up.

3.  A photo exhibition in San Francisco shows how art and war can merge in interesting ways.  "In Country: Soldiers' Stories From Iraq and Afghanistan" by Jennifer Karady depicts veterans of those conflicts restaging memorable (i.e. traumatic) moments from their deployments.  The New York Times article notes:
The portraits are striking.  In one of the large-format color prints, which measure four feet square, a soldier ascends a dark flight of stairs, armed with nothing more than a pair of textbooks held like a rifle.  In another, a smiling ranger sits on the edge of a placid lake, camping, as two buddies — each wearing googly-eyed glasses and bloody fatigues — smile back.  In a third, a sergeant sits bolt upright in a burned-out house with no other company other than a giant pink bunny.  Adding to the photos’ emotional impact for the subjects is the fact that many of the models used to create the images — a little boy holding a gun, a young woman holding an IV, a mother holding a bouquet of lilies — are their friends or family members.
While some of the photos are eerie and unsettling, I can appreciate how the photographer is trying to view the unthinkable horrors of war through (literally) a different lens.  Sometimes distortion and exaggeration are the only ways we can make sense of things like traumatic amputation of limbs and Death by Shrapnel.

4.  And finally, everything old can be made new again--or at least yanked into this century.  A company has designed a gizmo that will turn your "old-fashioned" manual typewriter into a keyboard for a computer.  You can buy a USB typewriter, order a kit to do your own, or send in your old Royal, Olivetti or Underwood and have them customize it for you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Chance Gooding Sorts Through the Bomb Reports (an excerpt)

In Fobbit, Fact makes love to Fiction so many times they eventually get married and have a large brood of children.  Whether those offspring turn out to be the beautiful children who grow up obedient and ambitious and later go on to Harvard to become doctors and lawyers, or end up the cross-eyed, bucktoothed, "I married my cousin" kids, remains to be seen.  The fact of the matter is, when writing the novel I've transplanted real events from my year in Iraq into the blown-out-of-proportion hyperreality of satire.  Sometimes, it's gotten to the point where I have trouble distinguishing what really happened to me from what I've created.

This scene from the novel, however, is pretty close to the bone and reflects not only actual Significant Activity reports which came across my desk in Public Affairs, but also my feelings of frustration and disorientation as I tried to keep everything straight.
In his job as media relations NCO, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding juggled Improvised Explosive Device reports like they were flaming tenpins.  The IED and Vehicle-Borne IED rate was on the rise, spiking within the past week.  In fact, they were now coming at Gooding at such an alarming rate, he was unable to properly keep track of them.  With each Significant Activity report, he opened another press release template and started typing, trying all the time not to get events confused.  Only the body count helped keep the Sig Acts straight in his mind—well, that and the many typos which peppered the Sig Acts.  A squad patrolling along Route Vulcan was said to be on “Route Vulva.”  A staff sergeant rounding up suspected bomb makers grabbed them by their “shits.”  And, Gooding’s favorite, a private first class injured by the concussion from an IED blast was said to have suffered “a loss of conscience.”

Another time, as his glazed eyes were skimming through all the IED, VBIED, rocket-propelled-grenade and small-arms-fire attacks, he stumbled across this in a description of a unit coming under an RPG attack:  “Unit also observed peanut-butter colored Mercedes which left scene right after attack.”  Peanut-butter colored.  Who says Sig Acts can’t make for interesting reading?

Quirky details of IED attacks usually helped make Gooding’s job easier.  On an otherwise quiet night two weeks ago, three VBIEDs were detonated within the space of a few minutes in a West Baghdad district filled with small, Mom-and-Pop businesses.  The terrorists set off one bomb, then sat back and waited for the Iraqi Police and firefighters to respond before they set off the other two.  Complex Multi-Staged Ambush, G-3 called it.  Several IPs were killed, dozens of civilians wounded.  One car was blown into the air and, like a flaming metal meteor, landed on top of the row of shops, destroying an electronics store, a barber shop and, ironically, an auto parts store.

Reporters routinely called Gooding on the phone, wanting more information about, for instance, “the explosion on Airport Road” and he would have to ask them for more information—time of explosion, number of killed and injured, any unusual body parts, etc.—to pinpoint the event.  His press release headlines all read the same with vanilla-oatmeal predictability:  “Iraqi Police, Army secure bomb blast site” or “Baghdad explosion kills 8, wounds 12” or “Iraqi Security Forces, U.S. Army mop up blast site.”

At one point, Gooding got so frustrated in his confusion, that he turned to Major Filipovich in the next cubicle and said, “Sir, can’t we start naming these attacks, just like we name hurricanes?  I mean, I could keep them all straight if we could call them IED Martha or VBIED Larry.”

Major Filipovich, never one to crack a smile, even at his weakest moments, leaned back in his chair, yawned, rubbed his black billiard-ball head, and said, “Fan-fucking-tastic idea, Sarge.  Why don’t you propose it to our Most Esteemed Leader at the next staff meeting?  I’m sure Harkleroad will treat it like every other brilliant idea I’ve brought his way:  he’ll drop it straight into the toilet and give it a good flush.”  Filipovich chair-scooted back into his cubicle.  “Now, if you don’t mind, you interrupted a most delicious nap with an equally delicious dream involving the Queen of Sweden and a can of whipped cream.”

Gooding gritted his teeth and turned back to his headline.  “Al-Dora blast kills 8, injures 3.”  No, wait, it was supposed to be “Al-Dora blast kills 3, injures 8.”  Now, he was confused and he pawed through the pile of Sig Acts on his desk to get everything straight in his head again.  He was near the end of his shift and it hadn’t been a good one.

The morning started with a terrorist sabotaging water lines at a water treatment plant outside Baghdad at 4:40 a.m.  The bomb burst the pipes at a crucial joint and sewer water had flooded the control room.  Iraqi Department of Water officials rushed to the scene and shut off water for everyone in Baghdad west of the Tigris River.  The government reported that it could take up to three or four days of them working around the clock to repair this latest sabotage.  Citizens were riled and started venting on Al-Jazeera, mouths chewing the microphones and spittle misting the camera lens.

Then, shortly after 1 p.m., a VBIED detonated behind an Iraqi Police patrol, killing two Iraqi Army Soldiers, two IPs and wounding 27 others, including two IPs.  Gooding silently named that one IED Vaporized Cop.

The worst was yet to come.  There was still plenty of daylight left on the clock.

Shortly before 3 p.m., a man wearing a suicide vest packed with explosives walked into a restaurant.  He killed five Iraqi soldiers and 13 civilians and wounded at least 34 civilians.  These were just the initial reports Gooding received over the Sig Acts.  The Associated Press later tallied it at 23 dead, 36 wounded.

Nobody on the scene saw the bomber carrying anything into the restaurant.  According to a group of Iraqi soldiers inside the restaurant at the time of the explosion, they had just ordered their lunch when the suicide bomber entered the restaurant and detonated the device.  Survivors at the scene said the majority of the restaurant patrons were soldiers who were partial to the special goat gyros served there for lunch every day, guaranteeing there would always be a large group of Iraqi military at the restaurant at any given mealtime.  Area residents knew the restaurant would be targeted for this reason and most of them tried to avoid it whenever possible, taking a wide detour around the block during the noon hour.

Gooding’s e-mail dinged and he saw he’d been sent a series of photos from the brigade public affairs team which had rushed to the scene in the smoky aftermath.

Gooding clicked on the attachments.

The first photos showed the small, hole-in-the-wall (now literally) restaurant gutted by swift, lethal fire.  Part of the ceiling was gone and hot sunshine flooded the charred interior.  Viscera was smeared across the floor.  Tables and chairs, inextricably married in a tangle of chrome legs and plastic cushions, rested against a back wall where they’d been propelled by the blast.  Bright packages of crackers, tins of tea and cellophane-wrapped candy were still neatly arranged on a shelf next to a register, waiting for someone to come along and make a purchase.  A man, presumably the owner, stood in a still-smoking door frame—the door was gone, thrown halfway down the block.  His eyes were glassed with shock as he stared at what remained of his shop.

Gooding clicked into the next e-mail, subject line:  “The remains of the suicide bomber.”

A head.  Two legs which appeared to be sprouting from his neck.  A hand, fingers twisted and broken, in the region where you’d normally find the right hip bone.

That was it.  Nothing more.  Everything else—skin, bone, muscle, organ—had been vaporized, a brick-red mist splashed through the dust and rubble of the restaurant.

In the blackened head, the eyes were squeezed shut, as if in the final reflex before the bomber pulled the det cord.  His feet on the end of those neatly-severed legs were turned in opposite directions—one up, one down.  If you didn’t know better, you might mistake his legs for arms, his feet for hands.  He looked like a meaty jigsaw puzzle of parts—with those feet-hands, he looked like a child’s drawing of a traffic cop, one hand saying “Stop!”, the other beckoning “Go!”

Gooding decided to zoom in on the ragged end of the shoulder.  His cursor changed to a magnifying glass.  The closer he got to the sheared-off torso, the less it looked like meat, less like the abrupt ripping-away of life, and more like strawberry jam.  That was okay, right?  Strawberry jam was delicious under the right circumstances.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Celebrating the Army Birthday in Baghdad

Dipping back into the journal from my tour of duty in Iraq, I found this entry for that long-ago today:

June 14, 2005:  Today is the Army Birthday—230 years old.  We’ve come a long way from the barefoot, freezing soldiers at Valley Forge—to some degree.  In other ways, we’re still much the same—confused, disorganized, craving good equipment and hot meals.  We wear flak vests over here, but sniper bullets still find the vulnerabilities—that life-or-death gap where the armor plates meet.

Celebrating the Army’s heritage is a long-standing tradition at all Army posts back in the States.  We get the day off, flags flutter, picnics are organized, units compete in 5k runs, whole formations gather to sing The Army Song.

Over here, it’s only slightly different.  Commanders still make a fuss at each of our FOBs—every one of them rolling out door-sized birthday cakes which are cut by unit leaders and, by tradition, the oldest and youngest soldiers in the unit.  Troops take a break from the battle at Abu Ghraib, FOB Prosperity, and Camp Taji to sink their teeth into slabs of cake, frosting ringing their lips while they gab and laugh with the person standing next to them.

We cannot forget the bloody business of war for very long, however.  While Maj. Gen. William Webster and Command Sgt. Maj. William Grant are cutting a 3x4 cake with ceremonial swords in a hallway in the headquarters and Fobbits are licking the drips of melting ice cream from their fingers, a soldier is dying.

The Significant Activity reports tick across our computer screens:

0946hrs:  A patrol in south Baghdad takes small-arms fire.  No injuries or damage.  A Local National was observed fleeing south on foot.  Patrol didn’t pursue.  Continued mission.

1237hrs:  A Polish Army patrol, traveling south of Route Tampa struck an IED, damaging 5-ton truck.  No injuries.  Continued mission.

1306hrs:  An MP patrol takes RPG fire.  M1114 was struck.  Gunner killed, one other Soldier wounded.

At the end of the day, the chart I maintain at my desk (attacks categorized by type, bubbles filled in with unit designators, Sig Act number and time of day) is nearly filled.  The tally for the day includes 13 IEDs, one VBIED, three indirect fires, eight small-arms fires, one Rocket-Propelled Grenade and three complex attacks which involve one or more of the others.

Right on cue, the Associated Press calls to ask about the Soldier’s death.  Inevitably, they want to tie it into the Army Birthday.  The next day, I end up sounding trite and maudlin in the one quote they decide to use in the story which zips across the wire: “Today is a day when we reflect on the heritage of the Army and those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, and the latest death in Baghdad is obviously a sad event on our birthday.”

Death, bombs, birthday cake.  The whole day has worn me down.  There is not a day—nor will there be a day—that doesn’t go by without a death, be it American or Iraqi.  The Sig Act machine will never fall silent, will never stop tossing reports of IEDs or gunfire onto our computer screens.  After today, I don't have a lot of brain power left with which to philosophize about the war, but I am increasingly feeling like this is another Vietnam.  I guess I thought that before I came over, but it's only intensified since I've actually been here to see the parallels.  Of course, always having the helicopters flying overhead, dopplering from one side of the FOB to the other, constantly reminds me of Apocalypse Now.

The other thought that keeps scrolling through my brain is that we're training people who may someday turn around and kill us.  The world is so unstable that I can't trust anyone to be faithful and grateful to us today, and not whirl around to bite us a decade from now when their minds have turned to vengeance for all the Abu Ghraibs, Guantanamos, collateral damage killings and so forth we've inflicted on them today.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Soup and Salad: "The Man Who Loved Children," Teen Stieg, Go West, "The Squickerwonkers," Bookshelf Porn


On today's menu:

1.  When Jonathan Franzen writes so passionately about a 70-year-old novel, you really feel like you have no other choice but to run out, barefoot and bareheaded in the rain to the nearest bookstore ten blocks away, dodging traffic, bike messengers and other perils, to buy the damned thing:  Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children.

2.  Science-fiction stories by a very young Stieg Larsson come to light, just in time for the current global Stiegmania.  The article's money-quote comes from Sweden's deputy national librarian:
Gram said it would be up to Larsson's estate-holders -- his father and brother -- whether to publish the works, but said they should think twice before doing so, since the early works could potentially harm the author's reputation.
Remind me to tell you sometime about the novel I wrote when I was 13:  Mrs. Winter and the Pool of Teeth, a mystery in which a Miss Marple knockoff investigates the death of a Hollywood director who fell into a swimming pool stocked with piranha.  Some things should remain unpublished.

3.  The Library of America is offering a free download (.pdf) of a Nathanael West short-short: "Business Deal."  It's pretty funny, as far as satires of Hollywood go.

4.  Speaking of Hollywood and unintentional laughter:  "Lost" star Evangeline Lilly (aka Kate, aka "Freckles") plans to write a children's book.  Working title: "The Squickerwonkers."  No further comment.

5.  And, finally, I leave you with a new site I just stumbled across, courtesy of Like FireBookshelf Porn, featuring photos of bookshelves doing scandalous things!  In all sorts of positions!  Some of the books might even be French!


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jolly Good Bomb Training (an excerpt)

Continuing to make good progress on revisions to Fobbit.  Here, for instance, is a scene which I tinkered with this morning:

Everything Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. knew about Improvised Explosive Devices, he learned in Kuwait six months ago when he and 500 of his closest Army buddies sardined into a wind-whipped tent for a block of instruction on the hazards of modern bomb warfare.  He sincerely prayed to the Fobbit God that this would be the extent of his education, that his experience would never be “hands-on” (or “-off,” as the case may be).

Gooding sat thigh-to-thigh with a private from another company whose breath smelled of pepperoni beef stick.  The private sucked on his teeth, as if to worry loose something caught there.  Gooding had showered that morning, lathering himself scalp to toe with his favorite scent of body wash (lavender and vanilla), but now the happy effects of that were starting to wear off.  He tried to breathe through his mouth, not his nose.

The soldiers, rows and rows of them in still-starched uniforms the color of chocolate-chip cookie dough, sat unnaturally quiet in the tent.  They were squeezed together, stranger against stranger, and only a few had relaxed enough to start half-hearted conversations.

This was Day Two of their indoctrination training while they stopped in Kuwait before heading north to Iraq.  Day One had been filled with Weather Acclimation Standards, Convoy Ambush Safeguard Protocols, and something called “No Ugly Americans Allowed: Host Nation Culture and Sensitivities.”

Now, drinking obediently from their crinkly-plastic water bottles and rubbing the new sore spots on their necks chafed by M-16 slings, they were plagued by dry mouths, pounding hearts, and the overwhelming urge to vomit that morning’s breakfast.

Gooding breathed through his mouth and willed his heart to slow from a gallop to a trot while Private Pepperoni Breath kept murmuring, “Gaw-damn….Gaw-damn….Gaw-damn.”

Gooding wished the kid would breathe through his nose rather than his mouth.

A tall, bald man in a khaki uniform—a startling, non-American-issue uniform—bounded down the center aisle like a gazelle at feeding time then leapt onto the stage with a purposeful flourish.  The tent fell silent, save for the wind chopping against the canvas.  The man kicked two knee-high marching steps and turned to face the crowd.  The officer was from another army, but Gooding couldn’t place the country until the man shouted, “G’day, Yanks!”

A unified “Good morning, sir!” rumbled through the tent.

“Can you blokes in the back hear me okay or do I need to raise my pitch?”

A dozen thumbs-up from the back row and the British officer nodded and bobbed from side to side on the balls of his feet.  “Right then.  We’ll proceed, sans microphone or megaphone.  My name, for those of you who care, is Nigel Cunningsworth—Leftenant Cunningsworth for those of you who are hung up on military decorum.  But you can call me Nige.”

Gooding and Private Pepperoni looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  This guy was different, nothing like the stuffed-shirt stick-up-the-ass officers from the U.S. Army.  “Gaw-damn he’s a cool motherfucker, ain’t he?”

Gooding turned his head back to the front, trying not to gag.

“Right then.  What I’m going to address today is the importance, the vital importance, of always being on the lookout for those little things which you like to call IEDs.  We prefer to call them 'Auntie Mames' or just ‘Maimies’ because that’s what they do—maim.  If they don’t kill you outright, that is.”  He winked at the 500 soldiers.  “Jolly good, eh?  Right then.  Let’s have the first PowerPoint slide, if you will.”

The screen filled with what looked like a red Christmas candle dripping with wax—the kind of candle their mothers would place in the middle of the wreath centerpieces of the holiday table when they all gathered around to watch Father carve into the turkey with his traditional cry of “Toodle-Yule!” as Grandma struck a match to light the candle while the scents of nutmeg, sugar and browned meat filled the air.  Upon closer inspection, however, the photo appeared to be the stump of a man’s leg, sheared off above the knee and oozing blood.

“Quite a sight, eh, Yanks?”  A few of the 500 made muffled gagging noises.  “This bloke was lucky, he walked away from his IED encounter.  Rather, he limped away.  THIS is what happens when you don’t keep your eyes open, your ears cocked, your nostrils flared.  You get careless, you step in the wrong place, and—ka-BLOOEY!”  Leftenant Cunningsworth's boot stomped the wooden platform.  The 500 soldiers jumped as one.  “Three things will help you survive an IED attack: Speed, Staying in the Center of the Road and Maintaining Space between Vehicles.  Keep those three things in mind and you might, MIGHT, just make it back in one piece to the Land of Baseball and Big Macs.”

Nigel paced the platform.  “Next slide, if you please.”

A pile of charred scrap metal that was, at one time, a U.S. humvee.  The soldiers recognized the distinct whip of the antenna and the general shape of the grille and engine block, but other than that, nothing in the picture looked like anything they would drive—did drive, most of them, on a daily basis around Fort Stewart.

“The IED has become the weapon of choice for the enemy and, quite frankly, it is the coward’s way out.  There is no question about it: if the Iraqis want to engage Allied forces toe-to-toe in a small-arms firefight, they will bloody well lose every time.  We will kill them where they stand.  Thus, ladies and gentlemen, they use the—pardon my French—the chickenshit method of planting a roadside bomb and then killing us by remote control.”

Nige rattled off a roll call of statistics.  Time of day most frequently used by the insurgents: between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m.  Seventy percent of IEDs are detonated by remote control, which can be fashioned from doorbells, washing-machine timers or car alarms.  Since 2003, in the Iraqi theater of operations there have been 15,000 IEDs: 41 per cent were found and destroyed, 43 per cent were detonated with no injury, 13 per cent wounded soldiers and 2 per cent killed Soldiers.  That 2 per cent figure was intended to give them a small measure of comfort.  Of the 500 gape-mouth, sweating bodies sardined into the tent, only ten of them would be blown to bits so small even a dentist would have a hard time identifying them.  Not that he wished him any personal animosity, but Gooding hoped Pepperoni Breath was the one from their row to get the red-mist treatment and not him.

Nige was carrying on at the front of the room.  “I don’t wish to scare you unnecessarily, ladies and gents.  Fact of the matter, rare is the IED which does more than pepper our Allied forces with shrapnel.  There are a few tragic cases, yes.  Yesterday, par example, the entire crew of a Bradley struck an IED and was engulfed in flame—they all lived, but barely.  Two days ago, a female MP was riding in a humvee when an IED burst on the side of the road.  At first, they thought she and her driver just had minor cuts from the shrapnel, but when she passed out, they realized an unnoticed jag of metal had severed her femoral artery.  She died before they could reach the hospital.”

He coughed politely and said, “Next slide, if you please.”

A close-up of what looked like an egg timer connected by a tangle of rainbow-colored wires to a grey box with a series of knobs.  There was a ruler at the bottom of the frame for perspective.

“This was recovered from a weapons cache discovered by Australian soldiers in Basra.  The blokes hit the jackpot with this one….Next slide, if you please.”

Three photos on this PowerPoint slide: a mangled guardrail, a bomb-disposal soldier approaching a burlap sack in the middle of a deserted downtown street, the bloated carcass of a dog.

“Be suspicious of everything,” Nigel said.  “Never take anything at face value.”

Pepperoni Breath muttered, “Gaw-damn, I had me a dog that looked just like that.  A little thinner, though.”

Nigel explained that vulnerable points of attack included intersections and roundabouts, breaks in the median, high-bermed areas, bridges and overpasses.  “Now the insurgents, the bloody bastards, are getting more creative by putting IEDs in guardrails so the blast will be higher in order to take out the gunners perched on the roofs of your humvees.  But you Yanks are clever and industrious, I’ll give you that.  You have defeated them at their own game by methodically going along the busiest highways and removing as many guardrails as you can.  Much to the chagrin of our hosts, the Iraqi government, I might add.”  He grinned and winked.  “But no never mind about that, eh?  Hey-ho, it’s all a good lark in the name of democracy and freedom.  Pay no attention to that Iraqi minister over there in the corner piddling his pants.  He’ll get over it soon enough.”  Nigel caught the eye of a glowering sergeant major in the front row, then coughed and cleared his throat.  “Right then.  Back to the task at hand….It’s not all bad.  There are ways of spotting IEDs ahead of time.  As you motor around the Iraqi countryside, keep your eyes perked for piles of trash, tires, sandbags and animal carcasses.  Oh yes—” the shadow of his finger pointed to the dog in the slide “—as I’m sure you are well aware, one of the natural decay processes of a dead dog does not include sprouting wires from his nose and mouth.  Wink wink nudge nudge.”  The front-row sergeant major didn’t crack a smile, so Nigel plunged onward.  “Right then.  The sad thing, ladies and gentlemen, is that for all our intelligence about IED indicators, there are new ones popping up every day.  It is statistically impossible to track every method and means of delivery.  As of late, insurgents have been encasing IEDs in cement curbs.  That is just one new tactic they’ve employed.  For instance, if you motor through a neighborhood on a regular basis and you know there happens to be a certain section of curb which has always had a chunk broken out of it and then one day—voila!—it’s been repaired, chances are good that the Iraqi Department of Highway Beautification has not been there.  In all likelihood, it is now a concealed IED….Next slide, if you will.”

A crater in the middle of the road.  The sides of the dirt walls flashed with scorch marks.  Three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi Policemen at the lip of the hole—the Iraqis staring into its endless depths, the three Americans looking straight into the camera, grinning with their fingers in the triggers of their rifles.  Ten feet behind them, what looks like an arm cocked like a boomerang on the pavement.

“Lately, our analysts have been noticing a trend toward larger, more powerful explosions.  The terrorists are fashioning devices which go in two stages: one IED goes off and propels another IED into the vehicle, whereupon the second IED explodes.  In other words, lads and lasses, they’re using an IED as a propellant for another IED, knowing the combined blast will be enough to penetrate the armored skin of your American humvees.  Occasionally, they get lucky and have a successful hit on one of your Bradley Fighting Vehicles or Abrams tanks.  Most impressive, if I do say so myself.”  He coughed softly, then starting bouncing across the stage again.  “So, now our deaths come in clusters of twos and threes and fours, wiping out entire crews of humvees with a single double-shot of fire and hot shrapnel.  Jolly good, eh?  In the most recent incident, one soldier was burned so badly, they could not initially identify him.  All that remained in the passenger seat of the humvee were his boots with two charred stumps sticking out.  Bloody little for forensics to go on.”  Nigel stared out at the audience, winked, then said, “Next slide….This is a photograph of that passenger seat.”

The private next to Gooding choked, gagged, and said, “Gaw-damn”—except the “damn” wasn’t a word, it was a hot rush of pepperoni-laced eggs and coffee which erupted from his mouth and splashed across Gooding’s still-unscuffed boots.

No amount of scrubbing with lavender and vanilla that night could remove the smell of vomit from Gooding’s memory.  And no amount of digging his fingernails against his eyelids could erase the sight of those two charred stumps sprouting from that other pair of boots.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Day Charles Dickens and I Almost Died


Today marks the anniversary of Charles Dickens' almost-death (in 1865) and his actual-death (in 1870).  For someone like Dickens--whose works teem with coincidence, fate, mistaken identities and sub-plots that merge and bring his novels full circle with a sentimental clash and clatter--the fact that near-death and eventual-death were on the same day five years apart...well, the mind reels at how perfectly it all played out.  I'm tempted to believe Dickens wrote his own death scene.

I, too, almost died on this date.  Again, the brain spins at the coincidence.  I make no secret of the fact that Dickens has been, is, and will always be my inspiration, my lamppost, my touchstone, and my mapmaker in all of my writing.  I share with John Irving the deepest respect and reverence for our greatest novelist.  To know that we share a Near-Deathday is both weird and delightful.

My story is less like a scene from a Victorian novel than one from a poorly-acted action-comedy.  Twenty-eight years ago on this day, I was hiking in Grand Teton National Park with a buddy of mine.  We'd set out from Jenny Lake, bound for Inspiration Point, but stopped for a rest beside a glacial stream.  I saw what looked like a good photo opportunity and ventured out along the rocks which lined the swift-running water (which, I wrote that night in my diary, looked like "thousands of gallons of spittle").  I had my eye to the viewfinder and didn't see the algae slicking the rock under my tennis shoe.  It was straight out of a cartoon where the clumsy oaf hits the banana peel and there's a rising whistle sound on the soundtrack: whup-whup-whooo!  The foot slipped, I cartwheeled, the camera arced through the air, and I plunged into the ice-cube water.  My hands dug for a fingerhold on the bank but the current sucked me to the middle of the stream.  I went under, I inhaled water, I popped up like a cork, then I was pinballed between three boulders.  At one point, The Hand of God conveniently spun me around so I was facing downstream.

Except that there was no downstream.  The water ended abruptly fifteen feet in front of me and I was looking at blank air between me and the crowns of the nearby pine trees, whose trunks were twenty-five feet somewhere below me.

In the space of the next five seconds, here's what went through my brain:

00:00:01  What the fuh--?
00:00:01.5  Ohmygod it's a waterfall, I'm on the lip of a waterfall!
00:00:02.3  I'm going to die
00:00:02.6  Aaaiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee!
00:00:03  Gosh, I always loved Mom's homemade chocolate-chip cookies and now I'll never get to taste them again, and what about marriage and kids, and, dammit, I'll never know whether or not George Lucas will ever finish the Star Wars trifecta of trilogies like he promised....
00:00:04.5  This is it, this is it, this is THE END
00:00:04.7  My life flashed, etc.
00:00:05  Why oh why did I never read all of Charles Dickens' novels like I said I would?

There came a watery swoosh, the silence of falling, then a roaring splashdown in a pool at the foot of the waterfall.

I was okay.  Drenched, gagging water, and a little ashamed of the girly-scream I'd unleashed up there before The Plunge, but otherwise okay.  I stood there in the shallow water for several minutes, shaking and wondering what kind of life I'd lead from here on out, now that I'd been killed and resurrected in the blink of an eye.

On this same date back in 1865, Charles Dickens got just as close to the Great Beyond.  Dickens, then 53 years old, was traveling by train while returning from a trip to Paris when he was involved in what became known as the Staplehurst Railway Disaster.  Riding in the first-class carriage with the novelist were his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother.  In his coat pocket, Dickens carried the latest handwritten pages of Our Mutual Friend, his novel-in-progress.  Here is how Edgar Johnson described the incident in his biography of Dickens:

At eleven minutes past three the train entered on a straight stretch of track between Headcorn and Staplehurst.  One third of the way there came a slight dip in the level country to a stream bed crossed by a railway bridge of girders.  Suddenly the driver clamped on the brakes, reversed his engine, and whistled for the guards to apply their hand brakes.  He had seen a flagman with a red flag and a gap of ripped-up rails.

A crew of repairmen were carrying on a routine replacement of worn timbers, but their foreman had looked at the time-table for the next day and imagined the train would not be along for another two hours.  The flagman was supposed to be 1,000 yards beyond the gap and to have laid down fog signals, but that day he had neglected the signals and was only 550 yards from the bridge.  When the engineer saw him it was too late.  As he reached the bridge the train was still going almost thirty miles an hour.
The engine leaped the 42-foot gap in the rails and ran to the farther bank of the river bed.  The guard's van that followed was flung to the parallel track, dragging the next coach with it.  The coach immediately behind was that in which Dickens and Ellen were seated.  It jolted partly over the side of the bridge, ten feet above the stream, with its rear end on the field below.  The other coaches ran down the bank, turning upside down in the marshy ground, where four of them were smashed to matchwood.
Dickens climbed out of his dangling railcar through a window, and found a worker to give him a key so he could free Ellen and her mother from the tilting carriage.  He went back for his brandy flask, filled his hat with water and started walking through the wreckage and the carnage, giving first aid wherever he could.   Johnson continues:

The screams of the sufferers were appalling.  A staggering man covered with blood had "such a frightful cut across the skull," Dickens said, "that I couldn't bear to look at him.  I poured some water over his face, gave him some drink, then gave him some brandy, and laid him down in the grass...."  One lady who had been crushed to death was laid on the bank just as her husband, screaming, "My wife!  my wife!" rushed up and found her a mangled corpse.  Dickens was everywhere, helping everyone.  When he had done everything he could, he remembered that he had the manuscript of the next number of Our Mutual Friend with him, and coolly climbed into the carriage to retrieve it.
In the Postscript to Our Mutual Friend, Dickens wrote with characteristic wit about how he returned to save his characters:
On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr and Mrs Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr and Mrs Lammle at breakfast) were on the South Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage— turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn—to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. The same happy result attended Miss Bella Wilfer on her wedding day, and Mr Riderhood inspecting Bradley Headstone's red neckerchief as he lay asleep. I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever, than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book:—THE END
THE END would come sooner than he imagined (and much, much sooner than we, his legion of fans, would have wanted).  Our Mutual Friend was the last novel Dickens would ever complete--and, in my opinion, it remains one of his best, if not the best (I also have a fondness for the less-popular Dombey and Son).

Dickens never got over Staplehurst.  In his biography, Peter Ackroyd writes, "travelling became for him the single most distressing activity."  Dickens' daughter Mary recalled, "My father's nerves never really were the same again...we have often seen him, when travelling home from London, suddenly fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over, clutch the arms of the railway carriage, large beads of perspiration standing on his face, and suffer agonies of terror.  We never spoke to him, but would touch his hand gently now and then.  He had, however apparently no idea of our presence; he saw nothing for a time but that most awful scene."

(Speaking of "most awful," if you want an alternate version of the Staplehurst accident and its residual effect on Dickens, you can slog through Dan Simmons' novel Drood.  I don't recommend it, but masochistic readers can get their 770-page fill of how Dickens and Wilkie Collins descend to the sewers under London pursuing, and pursued by, a monster called Drood who first appears to Dickens out of the Staplehurst wreckage in the novel's opening pages.)

Dickens ducked the Grim Reaper's scythe at Staplehurst, but he wasn't so quick on his feet five years later.  On June 8, 1870, he awoke early "in excellent spirits," Ackroyd tells us.  After breakfast, he went to the writing desk in his custom-built Swiss chalet and worked on The Mystery of Edwin Drood for several hours.  He ate lunch, smoked a cigar, then returned to Drood, penning a final passage which opens with "A brilliant morning shines on the old city"--which, Ackroyd reminds us, "echoes the very first sentence of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers: 'The first ray of light which illumines the gloom...'"

Like I said, it's as if Dickens was neatly writing his death scene, one eye on the sentimental movies which were half a century in the future.

He returned to the house for dinner, appearing "tired, silent and abstracted."  As he sat down to the meal, his sister-in-law Georgina "noticed a change both in his colour and his expression," Ackroyd writes.
She asked him if he were ill, and he replied, "Yes, very ill; I have been very ill for the last hour."  She wanted to send immediately for a doctor but he forbade her to do so, saying that he wanted to go to London that evening after dinner.  But then something happened.  He experienced some kind of fit against which he tried to struggle--he paused for a moment and then began to talk very quickly and indistinctly, at some point mentioning (his close friend and biographer) Forster.  She rose from her chair, alarmed, and told him to "come and lie down."
"Yes," he said  "On the ground."
But as she helped him he slid from her arms and fell heavily to the floor.
Dickens never regained consciousness.  Doctors arrived, but could do nothing for him; the stroke had done its work.  Telegrams were sent and family members rushed to the Gad's Hill home, standing helpless at his side, weeping as he slipped away from them.  He lingered in that suspended state for nearly a day.  Then, Ackroyd concludes in his biography:
At five minutes before six o'clock in the evening his breathing suddenly diminished and he began to sob.  Fifteen minutes later he heaved a deep sigh, a tear rose to his right eye and trickled down his cheek.  He was dead.  Charles Dickens had left the world.
One-hundred-and-twelve years later, I would find myself teetering on the edge of a waterfall, certain I was about to plunge to my doom.  Instead of making a last-minute bargain with God, I made a personal vow to read the complete works of Charles Dickens.

To this day, I have read every novel, every short story, his early journalism and the account of his visit to America.  The only books on my Dickens shelf which remain unread are Holiday Romance and Other Writings for Children, Pictures From Italy and The Uncommercial Traveller.

I only hope I live long enough to read them.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fobbits and Grunts: Separated by degrees

At the moment I'm writing this, it's 63 degrees here in Butte, Montana.

Five years ago in Baghdad, it was more than 50 degrees hotter and, according to my journal entry for that day, I was one suffering Fobbit.  When you're this hot, I guess you get a little delirious....

June 8, 2005:  It’s hot.  Temperatures climb to the triple digits by noon and stay there until I get off shift around 6 p.m.  The heat is a Thing I must endure when walking between oases of air conditioning.  It presses in on my skin and scorches the lining of my nose and withers my lungs.  I had to make a fruitless walk out to the Troop Medical Clinic this afternoon to get my prescription filled, only to be turned away at the front desk—“You’ve got to come during sick-call hours”—and so I had to trudge back to Pad 17 where I live and work…about a mile-long walk.  Around the half-mile mark, my tongue started swelling up and I thought of those words Jesus croaked on the cross: “Father, I am thirsty!”  In my heat delirium, I started chanting a mantra: “Cold water, air conditioning, cold water, air conditioning, cold water, air conditioning.”  Along the way, I passed a group of black girls and heard one say to the others, “It’s so hot my lips is burning!”  I start thinking about Alaska and the times I’d take the trash out to the dumpster wearing nothing but my flannel pajama bottoms, a pair of slippers and a T-shirt when it was 20 below zero.  I think of bitter, bitter December in Fairbanks when I drove out near Ester, traveling along a desolate side road, into a deserted national forest in search of that year’s Christmas tree.  When I stepped out of my van and into the double-digits-below-zero cold, the air was so still, so frozen I could hear pine needles tinkling to the ground two miles away.  A raven crying overhead was like a sonic boom.  I start thinking of how my hands, even inside the cocoon of glove, went numb after fifteen minutes of hacking away at the trunk of a tree which was frozen hard as concrete.  I think of how, when your hands are truly cold, the skin of your fingers starts pulling away from your fingernails and you think you are being tortured by Viet Cong soldiers.  Just when I'm remembering how miniature icicles used to form on the tips of my nose hairs, I snap back to the searing heat of Baghdad.  I walk off the frying-pan sidewalk and into the cool cave of the Division headquarters building.  There at the front desk where the guards check your badge, it’s like a wall of Freon that greets you with a “Hi, howdy!  Let me cool your brow, pardner!”  These days, when I come in from walking any distance outside, I first go to my cubicle area where I store my M-16 on the wooden weapons rack, then I make a beeline for the bathroom where I splash water across my face and hair to wash away the sweat.
Reading back over this material--hyperbolic as it might be--I realize I should probably use some of it in Fobbit to contrast the worlds of the infantry and the Fobbits.  In the high heat of the day, there is little relief for the soldier out on foot patrol.  He may have the comfort of water from his Camelbak, but there is no "Hi, howdy!" Freon circulating through his Kevlar helmet.  The Fobbit knows this, counts his frigid-air blessings, but doesn't let that stop him from staying right where he is--deskside and cool.  When I say these soldiers' lives are separated by degrees, it's true in more ways than one.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Pity the Novella: Neither This Nor That


Ah, the novella.  The awkward cousin at the wedding reception who, in his suit-straining obesity, grazes at the buffet table while eyeing the slim, sharp young things having a good time out on the dance floor.  Someone should tell that fat cousin he's still loved, even though he has crumbs on his necktie and no one ever asks him to dance.

The novella is fiction at that awkward stage: Too plump in plot and character to be called a short story, but often too thin to warrant its own publication as a stand-alone book.  It is both "more than" and "not quite."

But what sets the novella apart from its thinner cousins, the short story and the anorexic short-short?  And what about those other fellows, big and solid as linebackers queueing up for dollar dances with the bride--the ones who call themselves novels?  Does the novella dream of someday bulking up to their heft?

Someone please take pity on the novella.  He needs a lot of love to remind him that, yes indeed, he is a valuable member of the family.

And that's precisely what Dan Wickett and the good folks over at The Emerging Writers Network are doing by celebrating June as Novella Month. Wickett writes, "I've always been fascinated at the range of different ideas behind exactly what makes a novella a novella." All this month, EWN is posting capsule reviews of contemporary novellas and asking guests to offer up their interpretation of "what makes a novella a novella."  Coming fresh off the maypole dance of Short Story Month, June seems the perfect time to sit back in the hammock with a glass of lemonade (or gin-and-tonic if you're reading John Cheever's Oh What a Paradise It Seems) and delve into the foggy world of the novella.

The novella lives an ill-defined existence.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as "a story with a compact and pointed plot" and "a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel."  Novellas usually range in length from 20,000 to 40,000 words.  The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction even more precisely defines the novella as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000 (what's up with that odd 17,500, guys?).

Setting aside word counts for a moment, we still find plenty of debate about the social status of novellas.  In his Afterword to Different Seasons, Stephen King called the novella “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.”  He goes on to say, "Now, artistically speaking, there's nothing at all wrong with the novella.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with circus freaks, either, except that you rarely see them outside of the circus."

King, of course, knows a thing or three about novellas; a good majority of his "short stories" are really those fat cousins in disguise.  In fact, I think the first time I ever heard the term "novella" was when I picked up a copy of Different Seasons in 1982.  That particular quartet of "longish stories" has produced two great movies (The Shawshank Redemption from "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and Stand By Me from "The Body") and one really mediocre movie (Apt Pupil from the story by the same name).  The fourth novella from that collection, "The Breathing Method," is perhaps unfilmable thanks to its horrific cover-your-eyes scenes of childbirth.

King's latest "book," Blockade Billy, is nothing more than two novellas gussied up by the publishers to cleverly withdraw $10 from your wallet while insisting you're really getting your money's worth with this handsome little hardcover.  Eh.  I've read Blockade Billy and I'm not convinced it's King at his peak ("Morality," a noirish lesson in greed, is better than the titular tale of a creepy baseball catcher), but I'm also not convinced they're novellas.  I've read other King short stories which were longer, wider in scope, and deeper in character.  But maybe that's just the cynic in me speaking--the one who's pissed at the $10 pickpocketed from his wallet.

The point here is, even publishers are at a loss to properly catalogue and classify the novella.  Is it just a question of length and lack of chapters?  Is it structure as much as it is content?  Defining "novella" forces us to examine the short story even more intently for how it executes its blade-sharp, blink-quick effect.

On the eve of publication of his much-lauded collection of novellas, The New Valley, Josh Weil wrote a paean to the form in the July/August 2009 issue of Poets & Writers:

Just as the brevity of the short form lends itself to particular purposes and demands particular strengths, just as the expansiveness of a novel allows for different approaches to story and unique potentials for what it can accomplish, a novella is shaped by the restrictions of its length, but it should be defined by what those restrictions allow it to do. It is a different animal altogether: Though worded as concisely as a short story, it has room for scenes to breathe. Moments can linger. The fist that squeezes the world of a short story into a few compact scenes can be unclenched a little--bits of backstory let in, descriptions filled out, characters lived with longer. But the novella embraces not too many characters, and not too wide-ranging a plot, not too vast a scope--those are the realm of the novel. A novella compresses the world with a short story's focus, but it explores that smaller space with a novel's generosity.

Still unsure as to what, exactly, constitutes a novella?  Take heart, dear reader--you are not alone.  For most of us, it's sort of like the classic definition of pornography: you know it when you see it.  At John Madera's hitherandthitheringwaters website, he offers up an incisive look at the novella's origins, sorts through the many definitions of the form and--frosting on the cake--provides links to dozens of "my favorite novella" lists by writers he polled.  Their answers won't help resolve the muddle of definition--one man's long short story is another woman's novella is another person's short novel.  But, at the very least, you can compile a pretty extensive reading list from all their suggestions.

Here are some literary works which most folks agree can be called novellas (though I'll admit I've always considered some of these to be novels):

The Dead by James Joyce
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Bear by William Faulkner
Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Miss Lonleyhearts by Nathanael West
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

As for me, I'm going to do my part to further EWN's cause by committing to reading at least one novella during the month of June.  Better yet, I'll read three--the trio of novellas in Josh Weil's The New Valley.  I've been wanting to read that book for nearly a year.  I can't think of a better time to pull it off the shelf.  Thanks, Dan Wickett, for the friendly shove.

And what about you, dear reader?  Do you have a list of favorite novellas?  Feel free to share with the rest of us in the comments section.