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Posts from the ‘Book Review’ Category

“She Gets It”: Elizabeth Heaney’s The Honor Was Mine

by Michael Fay

Active duty military and veterans have low expectations of civilians getting it.   Too much Hollywood, video games and time at the mall stand between us and them. The civilian-military divide is well-documented, the stereotypes maintaining it well-entrenched. Those who’ve lived the military experience, whether deployed to war or stateside in garrison, know it’s a life neither Hollywood, nor World of Warcraft, can remotely capture. Years are devoted to training for war, followed by years engaged in it. Through it all, GIs gripe about it, revel in it and struggle with its aftershocks. What’s an intimate companion of a few, is a distant relative of the many.   Most Americans easily express sympathy for military service with thankful handshakes in airports or bumper stickers, but few will ever devote the energy to develop what’s really needed: empathy.

There is one civilian who has devoted the time, effort – and yes, risk – to move beyond the stereotypes about what it means to serve, and in doing so has written a moving and insightful book on the challenges and rewards of contemporary military life. In The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans, author and therapist Elizabeth Heaney, MA, LPC, walks us through her personal journey from vaguely sympathetic outsider to deeply empathetic insider.

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VOLATILE SECRECIES – The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Reviewed by Carmelinda Blagg
O-Dark-Thirty Contributing Editor

Eighteen years before the meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, another largely forgotten nuclear accident occurred. On January 3, 1961, a bitterly cold Idaho winter night, the reactor known as the SL-1 exploded at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls. Three of its operators were killed.
Andria Williams adapts this tragedy as the compelling framework of her debut novel The Longest Night. Set against the constraints imposed by a culture of silence and conformity in late 1950s America, she explores the dangers of those early days of experimental nuclear technology alongside the complexities and mysteries of marriage, issues of trust and betrayal, the daunting loneliness faced by the military wife.
A brief prologue offers a frantic snapshot of that frigid night in 1961, as Paul Collier, an Army specialist assigned to operate and maintain the reactor, watches fire trucks and ambulances racing to the reactor site following the explosion. From there, we are pulled back to June of 1959. Paul and his wife Nat, along with their two young daughters, are newly relocating to Idaho Falls where Paul is due to begin his new assignment at the nuclear reactor (here, referred to as the CR-1). They stop their car just outside the Idaho state line to stretch their legs along the rocky shores of a lake, where Nat – a carefree California girl who grew up swimming and diving in San Diego – sees a group of swimmers on a rock and rushes to join them. After diving into the water fully clothed, she emerges, exhilarated and laughing, until she realizes Paul’s anger at her actions. Her impulsiveness is intimately familiar to him, linked to what he loves about her and what he most fears. What follows in subsequent chapters – alternating between Nat’s point of view and Paul’s, is a portrait of a marriage in a pre-feminist America where the pressures of gender norms were as much of a trap for men as they obviously were for women. Paul’s very different upbringing with alcoholic parents, “…in a rural Maine cabin as quiet as a deep snow, punctuated by outbursts of inexplicable and embarrassing violence,” has instilled in him an intrepid reserve and a need for discipline and control that at times, threatens to undermine the love he feels for Nat, and the larger hopes he has for his family after moving to Idaho Falls.
Such marital tensions play out in parallel with Paul’s growing realization that the reactor he and two other operators are responsible for maintaining is dangerously unstable. And, that his boss, a recklessly arrogant Master Sergeant Richards, isn’t much interested in hearing Paul’s concerns. Richards has his own problems. He’s close to retirement from a less than stellar military career; he has a fondness for booze and womanizing, and a marriage where hostilities and resentments simmer just below the surface. His feckless wife, Jeannie, is the only other character who gets some POV chapters of her own from which we learn a lot of unsettling truths about their married life and how she scrupulously labors to create an illusion of perfection reflected in those “vacuum marks freshly ridged into the carpet like paths to righteousness.”

Williams constructs her narrative with skill and patience, creating a tension that steadily mounts. And it isn’t just that faulty reactor that poses a danger in her story. It is more largely, the volatility of marriage itself, and of her main characters – Nat’s restlessness and spontaneity; Paul’s burdensome and rigid caution; the callousness of Richards; his wife’s neatly polished and well-honed bitterness.

But Williams’ sympathies are especially sharp when it comes to Nat. She captures her struggles as a military wife adapting to their new home – a place markedly different from San Diego – with its long and frigid winters and its arid landscape of “Mormon farmland, mostly potatoes – and finally the endless-looking desert, as brown and rough as sandpaper.” She tends to her household – faithfully packing her husband’s lunches, striving to care for her toddler daughters, struggling to make new friends in a neighborhood where “One man in the house crowded out everyone else.” All the while, she reproaches herself for her growing restlessness. During one interval when Paul is away, and with little else to turn to beyond the realm of her domestic duties, Nat’s days become dauntingly lonely and boring until she meets a young cowboy, Esrom, whose warmth and easy charms threaten to test her faithfulness.

Meanwhile, Paul’s concerns about the reactor leave him anxious and guarded, unable to communicate to Nat his fears about an accident he knows could endanger his own family. “He realized that he was lying to her daily. It was in her own best interest but he still felt guilty.” Paul’s workdays at the reactor, the problems he and his fellow operators struggle with, are convincingly rendered and, at crucial intervals, downright chilling. And his resentment towards Richards is sealed during a celebratory evening of drinking where he witnesses Richards in an act of cruel misogyny. Later, he reflects: “A sick feeling stirred inside him, the gut-cold confirmation of his life-long worldview: that this darkness was really what life was. Anything else you made for yourself was a temporary and tentative fiction.”

In the latter half of the novel, Williams manages, for the most part, an impressive juggling of plot twists, the various pieces of which converge dramatically in her final chapters, though at times things threaten to tip into excess. But Williams keeps her balance, mostly by maintaining her focus on Nat and Paul, portraying with poignancy and honesty their mutual struggle to love and understand one another. At one point Nat realizes: “…she cared for Paul in a way that was beyond love, beyond this life, that shocking intimacy of marriage and creation. How did anyone withstand it? It was like weaving your entrails together; it was beautiful and awful.”

Rich insights such as these at once elevate and deepen Williams’ narrative. In The Longest Night she has created a landscape of multiple perils – at once intimate, existential and more largely reflective of the volatile world we’ve created. And she has done so with prose that is consistently beautiful, incisive and humanely perceptive.

Carmelinda Blagg’s fiction has previously appeared in Avatar Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Falling Star Magazine, Wanderlust Review, O-Dark-Thirty, and the anthology Best of The Web 2009. In 2010 she received an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. She lives in Bethesda, MD, where she is a member of The Writers Center.

Review: Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing

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.

51M83nzSS0L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_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.

Matthew J. Hefti

Matthew J. Hefti

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.