Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Endless ("The Long Walk" by Brian Castner)

There are thousands upon thousands of war memoirs out there--a testament to the unending richness of history but also, paradoxically, the frequency and magnitude with which we as a country go to war. These memoirs--so rich and significant, so important--can only be written by those who survive the most horrific experiences imaginable, and thus our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live--our collective history as a species--is nourished on the sweat, blood, and nightmares of soldiers. For every Born on the Fourth of July, Jarhead, or With the Old Breed, there are millions of other stories that go unwritten, untold, unpublished, and forgotten. Not every soldier will live to tell their story of war, and not every survivor of war will tell their story while alive. These stories are perhaps the most important that can be told, and each is worth its weight in ink and paper, if not more so.

But where most of these memoirs are crucial parts of history, there are very few that can also be considered good literature--that is, something that does more than tell a story from Point A to Point B, or about Persons A through E and what they did at Events 1 through 10. There are those few soldiers who are gifted enough to channel their experiences through more than pure recollection--Brian Turner's poetry collection Here, Bullet and Tim O'Brien's novel-memoir The Things They Carried are the two examples that come immediately to mind--but when they do, it adds even more depth to an already profound story.

Brian Castner's The Long Walk is an example of that kind of book. An EOD technician, Castner moves between his experiences defusing IEDs during the Iraq War and struggling to re-acclimate to civilian life once his tour of duty has ended. Memories of he and his team approaching strange, dangerous contraptions in the sweltering Iraqi weather, their bodies weighed down by 80 pounds of gear while unseen forces shoot at them, move suddenly into Castner swimming through 12-packs of beer on the couch, going between the floors of the local VA hospital, and taking yoga classes in the hopes of ridding himself of the spider-like "Crazy" that has nested in his brain. He runs, he is tested by doctors, a bomb explodes, the yoga teacher twists herself in front of him, he steps in liquefied intestines, he takes his son to school, a phone rings in that emptiness of night, he dresses his son for hockey, he is insubordinate, he is diagnosed, he is sane, he is insane. It all moves together as one, as though his time in war and time in peace were melting together as one until he is a man in both worlds and neither world at the same time. His everyday life is filled with the chaos of war--he has an imaginary gun with him at all times, and his eyes scout for men who seem suspiciously familiar--while his memories are dominated by endless hours of waiting for IEDs to be reported, for his team to approach and defuse, of the camaraderie and sense of purpose he felt while the world around him fell away into thunder and fire.

This balance is what gives Castner's memoirs its literary depth and makes it a rarity among the countless other books to come out of the last decade of war. Were this book stripped of its cover and any biographical information on the author, you'd be tempted to think of it as a clever novel of sorts--a look at how, as Castner's grandmother-in-law tells his wife, war will kill the men it saves and send back someone new. There would be unfair comparisons to The Hurt Locker, some discussion of how expertly the novelist avoids one Hollywood-war-movie cliche after another--the nighttime scene in which a lowly pigeon brings forth a discussion about what the men will do when they return home is formulaic and saccharine, the critics would say in one voice--and a general sense that this writer, though promising in his skills, has watched Saving Private Ryan one too many times. But it's obviously real, still fresh and alive in Castner's mind--even his wife says his ability to remember even the most inconsequential of details is both amazing and frustrating--and it's a testament to Castner's skills as a writer that, more often than not, the reader questions what they're reading--the outlandishness, the carnage, the extremeness of all that's written down. After all, what better compliment to give a memoirist of war--and what darker condemnation to set upon the homeland reader--than to write about the world as it is and find resistence from those who find safety behind sanitized fantasies of how the world isn't. "This can't be real," the reader tells themselves, searching the cover for reassurance that this is just a novel, a story, a fabrication. "No one could survive this. This can't be happening now, not in my lifetime, to my friends and neighbors."

It is, and if the shelves of libraries and bookstores and archives are any proof, it will forever be.