by O-Dark-Thirty Nonfiction Editor Dario DiBattista
If there is such a thing as a canon for Iraq and Afghanistan literature, then we’re at Phase Two of its cultivation. Many early titles, by necessity – the consumer need and desire to hear something in-depth and unique about the wars which were often distilled into nothing more than cable news sound bites or headlines – lacked much reflection. Many of them were focused primarily on the “being over there” aspect of war literature. There wasn’t much to write smartly about regarding being back home because, as anyone who’s ever gone to war and has come back knows, the aftermath story is probably even longer and complicated and harder to make sense of. As we tell our writing students here at the Veterans Writing Project, if you don’t know your story, we, the audience, can’t possibly know it either. Distance and time are necessary for those kind of reflective narratives, whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.
This is the greatest part about Matthew J. Hefti’s suicide letter in novel form, A Hard and Heavy Thing. It’s a modern-day war novel, a book of fiction by one of our own, that follows a three-act structure – the full story of being a soldier, thank goodness. One: Life as a civilian and deciding to join. Two: Life in combat “over there.” Three: The insane and dull mental and physical challenges of returning home. In Levi’s case (the protagonist and narrator of A Hard and Heavy Thing), coming back to a small town where he gets cheered for the award he’d won for the worst day of his life. It is a story of love and friendship and coming-of-age, one that encompasses the entire war experience from to combat to back home.
In Act One (or Book One, as Hefti structures his novel), friends Levi, Nick, and Eris slum around their Wisconsin hometown. They play in a punk rock band and get drunk and do drugs. They kind of go to school and have some vague ambition. But they’re at the tail-end of Generation X, the last of those who made up the apathetic and disenfranchised-feeling generation that existed right before September 11, 2001. Nick and Levi one very late night decide to join the military after the nation-changing events of that day. They want to fight and have some meaning in their lives, but the War in Afghanistan is mostly “over” before they get through training, so they get redirected to Iraq.
Act Two is a deft literary narrative concerning the insane challenges of modern combat: waiting with boredom and discomfort for something to happen, determining who the enemy is and the moral challenges of treating them properly when captured, and the soul-sucker punch of the waiting ending in brothers-in-arms having been blown up. That final aspect, one particularly brutal day in Levi and Nick’s experience, sets about the spiritual conundrum of being a hero but still being a failure – the hard and heavy thing.
How the hell does anyone just come home from that? In Act Three, Levi slowly, painfully descends into a poor mental state, which galvanizes his decision to write his story down as a tell-all for Nick, before choosing suicide. But something unexpected happens when Levi’s done with his draft. Something that changes both of their lives forever.
Beyond the gripping story, there is an intriguing commentary on war literature that occurs within the acts of a Hard and Heavy Thing. The book asks what is true, what is the value of that truth, and how does our self-reflection change the past and affect our futures? The suicidal narrator comments parenthetically on his third-person story about his life, and a reader can’t help but wonder how much of that first-person interjection is true to Hefti’s – a combat veteran himself – actual experience. Indeed, Hefti also shows up for bit role in his own novel in Book Two, nodding to the interconnectedness and universality of the story of all the men and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The self-awareness and unique structuring of this novel help set it apart in this second wave of storytelling about our nation’s 21st century wars. You should pick it up and read it. Once you get started, you won’t want to stop.