Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Few Notes (and Footnotes) on "The Pale King"

1. David Foster Wallace wrote a bunch of books filled with an even bigger bunch of words.  Bunches and bunches of words.  I read one of those books--Infinite Jest--and loved it.

2.  I can't remember much about Infinite Jest now, more than a decade after reading it--except for these scattered fragments:  tennis, drugs, and a movie that completely consumes its viewers.  This is one of the hazards of:  a) growing old; b) being on anti-depressants; c) reading an average of 45 books per year, nearly all of which go by at a blur.  I'd re-read IJ...if only I could find the time.  An Internet acquaintance* compares the 1,079-page book to The Brothers Karamazov.  I've never read Dostoevsky's novel, but I nod across the Internet and act like I have.  And now he's reading this and knows I'm a sham.  What a shame.

3.  David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2008.  He was 46. 

3.5.  The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete.  Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target.  His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life.  “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said.  Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.”  ("David Foster Wallace's Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest" by D. T. Max, The New Yorker, March 9, 2009--highly-recommended for those who want intimate, painful details of DFW's life and death)

4.  At the time of his death (that should read: "on the day he robbed us of himself"), he was about one-third of the way through writing his third** novel.  It was alternately called "The Long Thing," "Gliterrer," SJF" ("Sir John Feelgood"), and "What is Peoria For?"  We now know it as The Pale King***.

5.  The Pale King will be published on April 15, 2011.  According to the publisher (Little, Brown), it's a novel set in “an IRS tax-return-processing center in Illinois in the mid-1980s,” and tells the story of “a crew of entry-level processors and their attempts to do their job in the face of soul-crushing tedium.”

6.  The partial manuscript [of The Pale King] expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration.  Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment[****], the book suggests.  As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”  (Max, D. T., "David Foster Wallace's Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest")

7.  DFW's widow, Karen Green, designed the cover for the U.S. edition which you see above.  I really, really like this cover design.  It speaks to the fragmentary-but-cohesive nature of Wallace's work and the implied cut-and-paste method of reconstructing a dead author's unfinished novel.

8.  There's also a UK cover, which is good in its own right.  If you click on that link, you will get The Howling Fantods.  Not "a case of the Howling Fantods," but the website which is a 24/7 mini-mart dedicated to DFW.

9.  Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.  Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you.  Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Instant bliss in every atom.  (A typed note DFW left with The Pale King manuscript)

10.  Wallace once compared writing The Pale King to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.”

11.  The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t....I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore.  Maybe the answer is simply that to do what I want to do would take more effort than I am willing to put in.  Which would be a bleak reality indeed, if that’s all it is.  (David Foster Wallace, in a 2005 e-mail to his best friend, Jonathan Franzen)

12.  I have high hopes that that's not all there is.  Oh sure, The Pale King is going to be a mind-bending, at times agonizing and frustrating, beast of a novel to read, and will probably leave us all with a sense of loss over what was left hanging, what was left unwritten and unfulfilled.  Then again, people, it's David Fucking Foster Wallace!  It cannot all be shit.

13.  No, it can't.  Not according to the opening of this excerpt which was published in The New Yorker, under the title "Wiggle Room," on March 9, 2009.  These sentences bode well for the rest of The Pale King (note, for instance, the many ways he uses the word "bore"):
Lane Dean, Jr., with his green rubber pinkie finger, sat at his Tingle table in his chalk’s row in the rotes group’s wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month.  Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once, except to put the completed files and memos in the two Out trays side by side up in the top tier of trays, where the cart boys could get them when they came by.  After just an hour the beach was a winter beach, cold and gray and the dead kelp like the hair of the drowned, and it stayed that way despite all attempts.  Then three more, including one 1040A, where the deductions for A.G.I. were added wrong and the Martinsburg printout hadn’t caught it and had to be amended on one of the Form 020-Cs in the lower left tray, and then a lot of the same information filled out on the regular 20, which you still had to do even if it was just a correspondence audit and the file going to Joliet instead of the District, each code for which had to be looked up on the pullout thing he had to scoot the chair awkwardly over to pull out all the way.  Then another one, then a plummeting inside of him as the wall clock showed that what he’d thought was another hour had not been.  Not even close. May 17, 1985. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Cross-checking W-2s for the return’s line 8 off the place in the Martinsburg printout where the perforation, if you wanted to separate the thing’s sheets, went right through the data and you had to hold it up against the light and almost sometimes guess, which his chalk leader said was a chronic bug with Systems but the wiggler was still accountable.  The joke this week was: How was an I.R.S. rote examiner like a mushroom?  Both kept in the dark and fed horseshit.  He didn’t know how mushrooms even worked, if it was true that you scooped waste on them.  Sheri’s cooking wasn’t what you would call at the level of adding mushrooms.  Then another return.  The rule was, the more you looked at the clock the slower the time went.  None of the wigglers wore a watch, except he saw that some kept them in their pockets for breaks.  Clocks on Tingles were not allowed, nor coffee or pop.  Try as he might, he could not this last week help envisioning the inward lives of the older men to either side of him, doing this day after day.  Getting up on a Monday and chewing their toast and putting their hats and coats on knowing what they were going out the door to come back to for eight hours.  This was boredom beyond any boredom he’d ever felt.  This made the routing desk at UPS look like a day at Six Flags.  It was May 17th, early morning, or early midmorning you could maybe almost call it now.  He could hear the squeak of the cart boys’ carts someplace off at a distance, where the vinyl panels between his chalk’s Tingles and the blond Oriental fellow’s chalk one row up blocked the sight of them, the kids with the carts.  One of the carts had a crazy wheel that chattered when the boy pushed it; Lane Dean always knew when that cart was coming down the rows.  He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and I.D. number that some part of him still refused to quite get memorized so he had to unclip his badge and check it each time and then stapled the 402 to the return and put the file in the top tier’s rightmost tray for 402s Out and refused to let himself count the number in the trays yet, and then unbidden came the thought that “boring” also meant something that drilled in and made a hole.  His buttocks already ached from flexing, and the mere thought of envisioning the desolate beach unmanned him.  He shut his eyes but, instead of praying for inward strength now, he found he was just looking at the strange reddish dark and the little flashes and floaters in there that got almost hypnotic when you really looked at them.  Then, when he opened his eyes, the In tray’s stack of files looked to be still mainly the height it had been at 7:14, when he’d logged in in the chalk leader’s notebook and there weren’t enough files in his Out trays for Form 20s and 402s so that he could see any over the side of the trays, and he refused once more to stand up to check how many of them there were, for he knew that would make it worse.  He had the sensation of a great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor.  Never before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide*****.  He was doing a return at the same time he fought with his mind, with the sin and affront of even the passing thought.  The room was silent, except for the adding machines and the chattering sound of that one kid’s cart that had a crazy wheel as the cart boy brought it down a certain row with more files, but also he kept hearing in his head the sound a piece of paper makes when you tear it in half over and over.
14.  Are you still with me?

15.  Posthumous, unfinished novels are a tricky thing.  On the one hand, I was left feel all empty and unfizzed inside after reading Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  On the other hand, I consider Larry Brown's A Miracle of Catfish to be one of his best novels (if not the best).  The Pale King could go either way.

16.  In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents....It remains to be seen whether The Pale King will break through to the ecstasy beyond boredom, or just put readers to sleep.  (Or perhaps cause serial brain injury, like the unreadably dense experimental novel that keeps laying waste to readers in The Information by Martin Amis.)  But if Wallace’s last work turns out to be unbearably dull, perhaps we should be grateful.  After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more ­interesting ones?  ("Our Boredom, Ourselves," Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2010)

17.  For most of us, April 15, 2011 will be the best day ("Yay!  Yippee!  The Pale King has arrived!") or the worst ("Pass me another bottle of Excedrin, honey.  And tell me again, how many deductions we can take for installing solar panels on the garage?").

18.  Green returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband.  In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages.  He had made some changes in the months since he considered sending them to Little, Brown....In his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it.  Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel.  This was his effort to show the world what it was to be “a fucking human being.”  He had not completed it to his satisfaction.  This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.  (Max, D. T., "David Foster Wallace's Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest")

19.  I originally intended this blog post to be a short announcement telling you about the pub date and cover design for The Pale King, but it got a little out of control.  Deal with it.

*Something like Stanley Kowalski saying, "I have a lawyer acquaintance."
**Three is a number imbued with religious significance.  What could all this mean?
***For what it's worth, if you click on that link and pre-order The Pale King, I'll get a couple of pennies through the Amazon Associates program (the same holds true for any Amazon link you find scattered throughout the entire blog).  Of course, I would much rather see you buy books at your local independent bookstore.  But if you really must buy books through Amazon, please do so here.
****e.g., People reading literary blogs
*****A word which, unfortunately, will from here on out cause people to find Extra Meaning in everything DFW wrote.  I could type the words "I just can't go on" on this blog and if (IF, I said) I were to tie a plastic bag over my head this afternoon, tonight's local news would have this blog enlarged on the screen with one of those ragged-edge-paper excerpt-looking things shooting diagonal across your TV.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"The Wilding" by Benjamin Percy: Mother Nature is a Bitch

Of all the writers with new books coming out this Fall, none has gotten my engines revved faster or harder than Benjamin Percy.  And that's saying a lot in light of the fact that books by Stephen King, Philip Roth, and Joyce Carol Oates are on deck.  I've already spouted my love for his debut collection, The Language of Elk, and soon I'll have a review of Refresh, Refresh coming your way.

But Percy's big coup this publishing season is his debut novel, The Wilding.  The book combines Deliverance-style themes of man vs. wilderness, but also has a lot to say about marriage, the Iraq War, and father-son bonding (or, as the case may be, unraveling).

My review of the novel has just gone live at The Barnes & Noble Review:
Living as most of us now do in an urban and suburban world, we tend to idolize the deep woods as a place of natural beauty, a place to renew and reflect.  But it has not been long since the forest primarily evoked notions of threat, chaos, and alienation—the place where Dante loses his way. In American literature, glens and glades are ripe with symbolism, and everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne ("Young Goodman Brown") to Raymond Carver ("So Much Water, So Close to Home") has harvested meaning right down to the last blood-dappled blade of grass.  By this point, you'd think that writers would have exhausted wilderness as both place and symbol.  After Deliverance, what remains to be said about pitting man against nature?
Plenty, if Benjamin Percy's debut novel The Wilding is any indication.  In these pages, landscape is as much a character as the three generations of men who set foot in the woods on an ill-fated hunting trip.  Grandfather, son, and grandson track trophy deer, but they are also pursued by the malevolent forces of weather and razor-clawed beasts.  In this book, Mother Nature isn't a benevolent provider of spiritual refreshment, but a merciless bitch.
You can read the rest by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Soup and Salad: Dzanc Books, Bad Author Photos, Headless Dickens, The Shoes of Jonathan Franzen, Danielle Steele on Not Writing Romance, A John Scalzi Sermon, Beeeg Books, Kate Winslett Raises Cain

On today's menu:

1.  I've made no secret of the fact that I owe Dan Wickett an unpayable debt for his support and encouragement over the short span of what I'm calling the Renaissance Age of my writing career (i.e., every good thing that's happened to my work since 2004).  Dan and his Emerging Writers Network were there every combat-boot step of the way while I was deployed to Iraq; total strangers showered me with cards, care packages and--best of all--books.  Dan published excerpts from my journal at EWN and was instrumental in linking me up with a renowned NYC editor.  In later years, Dan invited me to join the roster of authors providing online manuscript advice for the Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions--a move which put me in touch with an outstanding, relatively-unpublished short-story writer Jon Horton (remember that name because you'll be seeing a collection of his lean, mean, macho stories about hard-bitten Western men at your local bookstore sometime in the future, I'm just sure of it).  Dan edited Visiting Hours, an anthology in which one of my short stories makes an appearance (see link to the right).  And, finally, Dan has been supplying me with some outstanding books of literary fiction (The Consequence of Skating, Pirate Talk or Mermalade, In the Devil's Territory, and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us are all bricks in my Tower of To-Read Books).  That's why it's so wonderful to see Dan, Steven Gillis and Dzanc Books get their due in this article from The Ann Arbor Chronicle.  Nicely done, gentlemen!

2.  Author photos are a tricky thing.  Marion Ettlinger is the undisputed champion of turning back-cover/jacket-flap photos into artwork.  If I ever have an Ettlinger credit under my headshot, I'll know I've made the Big Time.  The current photo I'm using sometimes feels like it oozes pretension and self-involvement with its gazing-into-the-horizon seriousness.  Truth is, I rather like it because: a) it was taken by my wife on a cold December day while we were walking along a road near Bozeman, Montana; b)  You can only see two of my three double-chins in it.  So, for now, I'm keeping it.  If you're in the mood to mock pretentiousness, however, and you've run out of snarky things to say about my photo, I encourage you to check out the gallery of Bad Author Photos over at Flavorwire.  My favorite category?  The Sophisticated Photograph (aka “The My-head-is-so-weighted-down-by-great-thoughts-it-requires-additional-support”):  It’s the two-fingered peace sign of tourists. The “say cheese” of extended-family portraits. The pouty lips of Facebook users. The middle finger of punk rockers. Putting your fist under your chin does not come naturally to most people, but given the pose’s ubiquity amongst authors, it must be innate to those within the profession.

3.  Speaking of heads:  Charles Dickens has lost his.
4.  And at the other end of the body:  HiLowbrow has been doing a wonderful series of blog posts which "seek to determine the make and model of fictional footwear."  The most recent entry in "Fitting Shoes" examines the golf shoes of Alfred Lambert in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.  Fun stuff, if you're into that kind of fetish.
5.  Danielle Steele says she is not a "romance author."  Yeah, right...and I'm not a man (just ignore that dangly thing between my legs).
6.  John Scalzi holds our feet to the fire in a pop-eyed, spittle-flecked sermon:  "Writing: Find the Time or Don't." this point in time I have really very little patience for people who say they want to write but then come up with all sorts of excuses as to why they don’t have the time.  You know what, today is the day my friend Jay Lake goes into surgery to remove a huge chunk of his liver.  After which he goes into chemo.  For the third time in two years.  Between chemo and everything else, he still does work for his day job.  And when I last saw him, he was telling me about the novel he was just finishing up.  Let me repeat that for you: Jay Lake has been fighting cancer and has had poison running through his system for two years, still does work for his day job and has written novels.  So will you please just shut the fuck up about how hard it is for you to find the time and inspiration to write, and just do it or not.
Bravo, sir, bravo!

7.  The Millions ponders the return of the Big Book.  Bricks, doorstoppers, free weights--whatever you want to call them, they're tangible proof that the book as a printed object isn't going away anytime soon.  I have a love/hate relationship with Big Books.  I love the way they feel in the grip of my fingers; I'm all but sexually aroused at the idea of those gazillion words shoulder-to-shoulder on the page--I mean, all that real estate between the covers!  On the other hand, I'm a notoriously slow reader and entering a relationship with a Big Book means I'm committing to at least three weeks, sometimes longer.  Just yesterday, I received an advance copy of Stephen Dixon's uncollected short stories (What is All This) from Fantagraphics Books.  It clocks in at 563 pages and I can't wait to get to it.  But then there's also Aurorarama (409 pages), West of Here (486 pages), Last Night in Twisted River (554 pages), Sunnyside (559 pages) and The Instructions (1,030 pages) waiting for me.  My wrist already hurts, my eyes are starting to burn.

8.  Kate Winslet does James M. Cain.  At least, in one sense of the word.  I haven't read Cain's noir landmark, Mildred Pierce, but I have seen the movie and I can tell you one thing: I will watch Kate Winslet any day of the week, whereas Joan Crawford* always gives me the willies.  Joan Crawford couldn't act her way out of a paper bag; Kate Winslet is the paper bag.  Kate Winslet eats Joan Crawford's shoulder pads for breakfast.  Here's the trailer for HBO's Mildred Pierce:

*Okay, okay, I liked J.C. in a couple of things--The Women, Johnny Guitar, among them--but there's something so....harsh about her face.  She scares the crap out of me, even when she's smiling.  Especially when she's smiling.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Freebie: "By Nightfall" by Michael Cunningham

Congratulations to Steve Himmer, winner of the Dzanc Books two-fer (The Consequence of Skating by Steven Gillis and Pirate Talk or Mermalade by Terese Svoboda), last week's Friday Freebie giveaway.

This week, you have the opportunity to get yer mitts on the latest novel by Michael (The Hours) Cunningham.  I'm offering up a brand-spanking new hardback of By Nightfall.  Jacket copy reads thusly:

Peter and Rebecca Harris: mid-forties denizens of Manhattan's Soho, nearing the apogee of committed careers in the arts--he a dealer, she an editor.  With a spacious loft, a college-age daughter in Boston, and lively friends, they are admirable, enviable contemporary urbanites with every reason, it seems, to be happy.  Then Rebecca's much younger look-alike brother Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, "the mistake") shows up for a visit.  A beautiful, beguiling twenty-three-year-old with a history of drug problems, Mizzy is wayward, at loose ends, looking for direction.  And in his presence, Peter finds himself questioning his artists, their work, his career--the entire world he has so carefully constructed.

I don't know about you, but I always love a good apogee crisis.

If you'd like a chance at winning By Nightfall, all you have to do is answer this ridiculously-easy question:

What novel by Michael Cunningham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize?  (The answer can be found by clicking HERE.)

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  In order to give everyone a fair shake in the contest, please e-mail the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  The contest closes at midnight on Sept. 30, at which time I will place the names of the correct respondents in a vintage potato-chip tin (which has been thoroughly cleaned of all snack-chip crumbs*) and draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 1.

*Thereby ensuring that a certain "Mr. Frito Pringle" is ineligible to be accidentally declared the winner.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Books on the Horizon

Oh, the wonderful perfume of autumn!  Burning leaves, just-opened bags of candy corn, the mildewy musk of that sweater you forgot to wash before you put it in the drawer last March.  And that oh-so-heady nose-tang from fresh-cut pages of new books.  Big books!  Winter doorstoppers!  Settling in by the fireplace for a long-winter's eve with Stephen King!  This is the season of bookseller buzz, and this Fall and Winter promise to be especially good ones for readers.

Here are just a few of the titles I'm really looking forward to in the coming months...

West of Here by Jonathan Evison.  The life of a Washington-state community is told in narrative segments that alternate between the town's founders in the 1890s and their decendants in 2006.  The back-cover copy says this novel "develops as a kind of conversation between two epochs--one rushing blindly toward the future and the other strugglig to undo the damage of the past."  It looks like Evison takes some risks.  I like that in a writer.

Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman.  Try to ignore that horrible cover design.  Holman's The Mammoth Cheese had a lousy cover, too.  But I loved, loved, LOVED The Mammoth Cheese and Holman's earlier novel, The Dress Lodger.  Based on those two novels alone, I'd follow Holman anywhere, down any road.

The Instructions by Adam Levin.  This is the doorstopper to end all doorstoppers.  Not only hefty in size (1,030 pages), it's big in intent.  The Chicago Sun-Times said, "The Chicago author, whose 1,000-plus-page story is about a juvenile delinquent with messianic tendencies who starts a revolution, is being compared to the late David Foster Wallace."  I have a bound galley.  I've read a few pages.  If I didn't have all these other books demanding my attention right now, I would have been sucked into the quicksand.

Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah.  I've been told I need to read Barry Hannah, the renowned short-story writer who died earlier this year.  I have never read Barry Hannah.  That is about to change this winter.

Driving on the Rim by Thomas McGuane.  The Big Sky Bard returns with another novel about New Westerners living in thinly-disguised Livingston, Montana.  I am so there.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King.  Four new novellas from The Master.  I am still so there.  (And what a great cover!)

So those are my Slobbering Anticipations.  What about you?  What are you planning to read (new or old) this cozy season?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Don't Know Much About Guns, Pt. 2 (an excerpt)

Here's another excerpt from Fobbit, similar to the previous "Don't Know Much About Guns" section I posted.  This was today's early-morning writing exercise.  I'm physically halfway through this second draft now; charging ahead, bayonet unsheathed, yelling at the top of my lungs.

It is the sixth of eight weeks at basic training and you are standing chest-deep in a foxhole on the M-16 firing range.  You have placed the rifle on the sandbag, as instructed, ejection port side up, and are under no circumstances to touch the weapon until told to do so.  You take all instructions from the tin voice crackling from the speaker with the loose wire—the one dangling from the side of the range tower like an eyeball popped from its socket.  You dare not make one move—left, right, back or otherwise—unless given explicit permission.  Else, the wrath of the drill sergeants will come thwapping down on the crown of your helmet in the form of a metal rod similar in size and heft to a martinet’s riding crop.  The drills stalk the line of foxholes looking for the weak and disobedient whom they can smite with the holy fury of The Rod.  Two groups ago, your battle buddy Kidner came wobbling off the line saying his head was still ringing like a bell.  You're prone to migraines so you are determined not to let yourself get thwapped.

It is bitter cold on this Kentucky morning, three weeks before Christmas.  An icy fog still grips part of the firing range, the white tendrils slowly melting from a too-distant sun.  The skin on your hands is pinched, numb, and the bed of your fingernails sting with the pain of the constricting cold.  You are so paralyzed with obedience that you dare not even bring your cupped hand to your mouth for a puff of warm breath.

You have just completed firing the first half of your forty rounds, sprawled prone in the gravel just outside the foxhole.  The rocks have cut so hard and deep into your elbows you’re certain that blood is trickling down your forearm right now as you stand, muscles jumping, near the back of the foxhole.  You know you have done poorly thus far in the qualification exam, the results of which will determine whether you graduate from basic training or remain behind in the barracks at Fort Knox for an extra two weeks of remedial training before having another go at the firing range.  You know you have done poorly in the prone because even though the ill-fitting helmet kept tipping forward onto the bridge of your nose, you could see well enough through the rifle’s two sights that a very, very small percentage of your pop-up targets were falling backward in response to your bullets.  They came and went in a narrow line in front of you, 25 meters to 300 meters: sneaking from behind berms, barely visible through bushes bullet-stripped of leaves, jumping up from rocks.

You think of all that the drills have—excuse the expression—drilled into your head about proper firing technique: firing-side knee cocked at 45-degree angle, left hand loosely cupping the forward handguard, resting the rifle on the heel of the hand in the V formed by the thumb and fingers, butt of the stock placed in the pocket of the firing shoulder, cheek welded to stock, tip of nose to charging handle, steady breath in, steady breath out, steady breath in—don’t hold it—out, in, out, ride the crest-and-trough waves of the oxygen, that’s it, that’s it…then, slow steady squeeze of the trigger with the meaty tip of your forefinger.  BAM!!

The pop-up men were not obeying your bullets.  They were not dying, one by one.

They were coming too fast, too fast, these green, hunched men with their plastic rifles.  How were you supposed to relax and breathe when they came up and fell back down at the rate of prairie dogs doing the pop-and-duck from their holes?

The gravel bites at your elbows, your chest presses into the ground, you cannot breathe, you cannot see, you cannot hear around the sponge of the earplugs.  You are encapsulated in your own world of sinus breath and muffled gunshot, watching the little hump-shouldered men spring from the earth, mock you for ten seconds, then melt back earthward long after you have pulled the trigger—impudent, disobedient players in this game.

Now you are standing in the foxhole which, you are certain, will soon be filling up with the blood from your elbows and knees.  Your brain is swelling beneath the helmet and you can already feel the prelude of a migraine roaring toward you.  A drill sergeant crunches past in the gravel and you flinch, waiting for the metal thwap.

Now the tower is telling you in its rattley voice to step forward, secure one twenty-round magazine, lock and load, then get a good sight picture downrange.  It is telling you to rotate your selector switch from SAFE to SEMI-AUTOMATIC and “Scan.  Your.  Lane.”

You breathe.  You squint.  You squeeze.

You suck.

This is the beginning of your Army career and, seventeen years later when you deploy to Iraq, you will still suck at putting rounds downrange.  There will be better qualification scores than the one from this first trip to the range at Fort Knox.  There will also be worse scores when, to your humiliation as a mid-level NCO, the battalion training sergeant will hand you the computer print-out and in a too-loud voice in front of your subordinates and peers announce you’re a “No-Go.”

But this is your first time and you will carry this moment with you the rest of your life, this first humiliating “No-Go.”  And later that night you will be sitting bent over your tray of food in the chow hall, not able to look any of your fellow basic trainees in the eye—not even your best bud Kidner.  You’re having a hard time swallowing the mashed potatoes for the lump that is lodged in your throat because you will not be going home for Christmas break but will remain at Fort Knox, Kentucky, remedially practicing over and over the essentials of breath and trigger squeeze.  That day, you hit twenty-one targets, two short of the minimum required to pass the qualification exam.  You are a failure, a wash-out, lower than a snake’s belly in a ditch.

You think as how you’d better start liking these mashed potatoes because you’ll be getting more than your fill of them over the next three weeks.

You hear a noise behind you, a warm breath on the back of your neck, and the next thing you know, the drill sergeant—the bug-eyed one who seemed to have it out for you from the first day you stepped off the bus—is leaning over, his voice in your ear: “Congratulations, private.  One of Santa’s reindeer just shit in your stocking.”

You gasp and straighten.  “What does that mean, drill sergeant?” you squeak.

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know, drill sergeant.”

“It means you passed the qualification range.  Merry Fucking Christmas, private.”

“For real, drill sergeant?”

“Yes, for fucking real, private.  You calling me a liar, private?”

“No, drill sergeant.”  The squeak in your voice has been joined by a shake.

“Private, are you calling me a liar?”

“No, drill sergeant.”

“If I say strings were pulled, then strings were fucking pulled.”

“Yes, drill sergeant.”

“Now finish your food and get the fuck out of my chow hall.”

The drill straightens and continues stalking the chow hall.  He bellows: “Awright, privates, get a move on, shovel it in, you got five minutes before you gotta be standing outside front and center in formation.  FIVE MINUTES, HEAR?  Don’t even worry about breathing, just shovel it in, shovel it in, privates!”

Such relief and exhilaration and, yes, Yuletide joy floods your chest that you slap the table with the flat of your hand.  The others at your table look at you, at the visible tears standing in your eyes.  “What’s wrong with you?” they ask, but you shake your head, unable to speak around the mashed potatoes which have gone dry in your throat.

You have gotten the first—and probably the last—break in your Army career.  That bug-eyed bastard of a drill sergeant has just broken some sort of rule on your account, finagled a dope deal with the training NCO—all for a thin, anxious private who will leave this place still not knowing how to properly fire an M-16 rifle or kill a pop-up target.

You will never, ever forget those hot, grateful tears rolling on the rim of your lower eyelids.  Or the happiness you feel when Kidner takes one look at you and calls you a pussy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cervantes saved my life

The Things I Carried in Iraq included Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Agatha Christie, and, yes, a copy of The Things They Carried.

Tucked deep into my duffel bag when I deployed first to Kuwait then north to Baghdad were as many pounds of books as the 3rd Infantry Division-approved packing list would allow.  Months before I set foot on the plane, I started plotting my Year of Reading.  This, I knew, would be one of the few Desert-Island Moments of my life.  These are the times when bibliophiles, oppressed by obligations from work and family, fantasize about empty stretches of hours just waiting to be filled with eyes coursing over lines of text.  War would leave me happily marooned with Don Quixote and Barnaby Rudge.  As much as it tore my heart in half to leave my family, I looked forward to the obligation-free hours I could spend with the books in my footlocker.

As we all know, fantasy seldom shakes hands with reality.

In 2005, I worked long shifts at Task Force Baghdad headquarters, ranging anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week (yes, go ahead, weep for us Fobbits!).  The work was not physically grueling, but over months the constant revolutions of the hamster wheel at work left me pretty exhausted.  Each night, after I trudged home through the ankle-deep gravel of the Forward Operating Base's Life Support Area, I'd prop my M-16 rifle in the corner, untie my boots, and fall back onto my cot.  My brain would spin with reports of soldiers killed in action and photos of decapitated suicide bombers which had come to me from Army photojournalists out in the field, beyond "the wire."  After a few minutes, I'd roll over and reach for the succor of a book.

Two things got me through the war in one piece: the sound of my wife's voice on the phone during my too-infrequent calls home, and the escape route provided by novels.  That year in Iraq was when I became a Serious Reader, and not just a dabbler.  In the combat zone, I started keeping track of books I owned and books I read.  I snatched reading time like other soldiers grabbed naps.  I perfected the art of reading in the bathroom while at work.  In the moments I wasn't juggling death reports and PowerPoint briefings for the commanding general, I was buried nose-deep in a book.

Somehow, word got around to the good folks at Abe Books and they interviewed me for a special series they were doing on wartime reading (if you click on that link, you get a bonus photo of me reading a Penguin Classic in my hooch).  In that interview, I said, in a perhaps-too-giddy, overstuffed voice, that Cervantes saved my life.

At any rate, books really did provide genuine relief and comfort (as they still do).  They were the next best thing to my wife's voice.

This is a complete list of what I read that year--the good, the bad, and the obscure:

Anderson, Edward: Thieves Like Us
Anderson, Sherwood: Winesburg, Ohio
Blanc, Nero: Wrapped Up in Crosswords
Brown, Dan: The DaVinci Code
Cain, James M.: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Cervantes: Don Quixote
Chandler, Charlotte: It’s Only a Movie—Alfred Hitchcock, a Personal Biography
Christie, Agatha: They Came to Baghdad
Collins, Billy: Questions About Angels
Crawford, John: The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell
Crichton, Michael: Timeline
Dickens, Charles: American Notes
Dickens, Charles: Barnaby Rudge
Dickens, Charles: Sketches by Boz
Dickens, Charles: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Fearing, Kenneth: The Big Clock
Gardner, Erle Stanley: The Case of the Deadly Toy
Gresham, William Lindsay: Nightmare Alley
Hamilton, Masha: The Distance Between Us
Heller, Joseph: Catch-22
Hemingway, Ernest: A Farewell to Arms
Hudgins, Andrew: The Never-Ending
Irving, John: Until I Find You
James, Henry: The Wings of the Dove
Kanehara, Hitomi: Snakes and Earrings
King, Stephen: Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger
King, Stephen: Dark Tower 2: The Drawing of the Three
King, Stephen: The Colorado Kid
L’Amour, Louis: Hanging Woman Creek
L’Amour, Louis: Heller With a Gun
L’Amour, Louis: Showdown at Yellow Butte
Leonard, Elmore: Escape From Five Shadows
Leonard, Elmore: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard
Leonard, Elmore: Valdez is Coming
MacLean, Alistair: Athabasca
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: One Hundred Years of Solitude
McCoy, Horace: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
McGraw, Erin: The Good Life
Mitchell, Stephen: Gilgamesh
Moore, Michael: Will They Ever Trust Us Again?
Niven, Jennifer: The Ice Master
O’Brien, Tim: Going After Cacciato
O’Brien, Tim: If I Die in a Combat Zone
O’Brien, Tim: The Things They Carried
Remarque, Erich, Maria: All Quiet on the Western Front
Snicket, Lemony: Number 12—The Penultimate Peril
Swofford, Anthony: Jarhead
Wallace, Edgar and Merian C. Cooper: King Kong
Whitman, Walt: Leaves of Grass
Woolrich, Cornell: I Married a Dead Man

Unlike book logs I've maintained in the years since, these are alphabetized, so there's no accurate way to determine when in the course of my tour of duty I read them.  I do know for a fact that Catch-22 was the first novel I read.  On Jan. 2, 2005, I wrote the following in my journal:
From Fort Stewart, we are bused to Hunter Army Airfield.  Twenty minutes later, we’re sitting in the DAGC (Departure Air Control Group) terminal.  We had to weigh ourselves with all our gear on (Kevlar, rucksack, flak vest, pistol belt).  I tipped the scales at 273.5 pounds.  They need our combined weight so that we don’t overload the plane, I guess.  I’ve got $168 in my pocket.  The terminal is a large, cavernous building which looks like an airport terminal—minus the seats.  We’re strung out all around the floor, leaning up against rucksacks, using Kevlars as helmets as we wait to be called to board the aircraft, a Continental Airlines 777.  The USO and Red Cross have set up tables, giving away Krispy Kreme donuts, toiletries, water, soda, paperback books.

Finally, they tell us to gear up and form a line alphabetically.  We go into another room, a holding tank, where we sit on bleachers for another hour.  Then, it’s really time to line up and head out the door for the airplane.  We walk out onto the tarmac and there are two Georgia bubbas waving large American flags and cheering us on.  At the foot of the plane, three officers shake each of our hands.  As we enter the plane, Brigadier General Horst, the Assistant Division Commander-Maneuver, is there to greet us, wearing a silly party hat.  “Happy New Year!” he cries.  Nothing at all happy about it, I think to myself.  Horst will be the senior officer in charge of the Division's advance party as we push the division north into Baghdad for the next couple of months.

Inside, the plane is festooned with red, white and blue balloons, crepe paper and drawings from elementary students wishing us best of luck and to “come home soon after you kill the Iraqis.”

Then we settle in for the 7,054-mile plane ride which will take us about 12 hours of flying time.

On the plane, I continue reading Catch-22. One passage in particular leapt out at me:

It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it—lived forever, perhaps.  Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them.  To die or not to die, that was the question….That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.  But that was war.
Here are some other book-related excerpts from my Iraq journal:
Jan. 8, 2005:   Started reading A Farewell to Arms today, the second of my several “anti-war” novels I’m reading on this deployment.  As always, Hemingway doesn’t disappoint. Here’s one passage I particularly liked:
     “It could not be worse,” Passini said respectfully. “There is nothing worse than war.”
     “Defeat is worse.”
     “I do not believe it,” Passini said, still respectfully. “What is defeat? You go home.”
March 15, 2005:  This is my day off and I’m determined to suck every fiber of enjoyment from it, all the way down to the marrow.  I waste a couple hours at the Internet cafĂ© after breakfast, but then I get down to serious business.  I lay on my bed reading Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir Jarhead.  It’s like boiling my eyeballs in acid. Through his rough, macho language, Swofford invites me through a doorway that leads to hell; and when I hesitate, he kicks me in the ass and shoves me right into the flames.  With the Blackhawks skimming so low over the roof of my trailer, I truly believe one of the skids will pierce the aluminum siding and carry me up into the sky over Baghdad.  With the Iraqi day-workers strolling by outside emptying our garbage cans and jabbering back and forth to each other, I really believe I’m in Swofford’s world of manic Marines.  It’s a frightening, addictive book.
     Not only am I trying to finish the Charles Dickens canon while I’m over here this year, I’m alternating the Inimitable Boz with war literature.  Someone was kind enough to send me Jarhead, but I also brought along The Red Badge of Courage, The Things They Carried, The Killer Angels and a whole shelf of Patrick O’Brian novels.  I guess I’m trying to see how other writers make sense of combat.
August 5, 2005:  I got a care package full of books tonight.   And not just any old books—these were truly old books: 1943 Modern Library volumes of Aristotle, Herodotus and Plato.   Then, the cream of the crop, a Modern Library edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, still in pretty good shape, even though it was more than 60 years old.   Funny thing is, before I deployed, I debated on whether or not I should bring my own copy of Ulysses (which is nearly identical to this one).   I decided against it, with some reluctance, and packed the Don Quixote instead.   Well, now I guess I have my answer:  I should read Joyce while I’m over here and have the time on my hands.   Who knows when I’ll ever get an opportunity like this again?  [Note:  I still haven't read Ulysses.]
Oct. 12, 2005:  I’m currently reading Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone.  And, no, the irony has not escaped me.