Posts tagged ‘National Book Award’

Sometimes all you can do is just eat the cherry cobbler – “Redeployment” by Phil Klay

This collection of short stories is bitterly heartbreaking, comical, insightful, and some of the stories are simply amazing.  Phil Klay served in Iraq for 13 months as a Public Affairs Officer and his writing is beautiful.  Don’t get me wrong here, it is rough, harsh, and descriptive in a way that makes you wince, but it is beautiful.  Not to grandstand, but this is a book that everyone, particularly Americans, should read.

The stories begin with a marine returning home to his wife after a tour in Iraqi.  His long anticipated return is awkward and not exactly what he had been looking forward to:

“Getting back feels like your first breath after nearly drowning. Even if it hurts, it’s good.”

They had been thumbs_military_policemen_on_security_patrol_outside_tq_-_shooting dogs in Iraq for sport and the soldier returns to his beloved dog who is old and sick.  It is awful to think of shooting dogs, so this book was a rough start for me, but there is an important point Klay is making.  This is who the soldier becomes. The man, who has a dog that he loves and misses and cares for at home, can put that piece of himself or herself away and think of dogs as target practice.

And the stories take you through all these pieces of being a soldier – the mundane day to day tours, the house raids, the mind-numbing administrative positions, the frustratingly stupid foreign politics, etc.  Klay doesn’t miss the ridiculous either, the all Iraq needs is baseball or widow beekeepers to recover moments are in there and they are head-shakingly funny.   But most compelling for me is how we place these people in extraordinary situations, with guns and death and nightmares in the making, and then we expect them to be able to handle the “normal.”   Once you go through this experience a simple trip to the mall with crowds of people takes on a whole different meaning of awareness.

The story that really seemed to the best example of that expectation of normal  was early on in the book. After a raid on a Iraqi home, after cleaning off the blood of Iraqis and fellow soldiers, the men sit down in the mess hall to dinner with their choice of any kind of cobbler.  For one young kid this was the first time he had killed anyone and he just sits there staring.  The other guys get him cherry cobbler, it is supposed to be the best, and hand him a spoon.

It is the best illustration that there are these moments in life where all you can do is keep going, even if that means you are just committing to do a small everyday thing.  Because really, if you think about it, we were told we were fighting this war to hold onto the small everyday things that make our lives meaningful.  Even things as simple as cobbler.

“Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.” 

August 30, 2015 at 9:21 am 3 comments

If he smells like urine he is probably crazy – “Paris Trout” by Pete Dexter

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter: Book Cover

Paris Troutby Pete Dexter, Published 1988

I found this book interesting but my feelings about it are mixed.  If it adds anything it did win the National Book Award (impressed?) so many very important people liked it more than me.

The story starts with Rosie, a 14 year old black girl, living in the Southern town of Cotton Point, Georgia in the post WWII era.  Because her prostitute mother kicks her out of the house (that’s right Rosie’s life isn’t hard enough just being black in the South), she finds herself living with Mary McNutt, a kind woman who takes her in, and Ms. McNutt’s children.  Ms. McNutt’s son, Henry Ray, buys a car from Paris Trout, a wealthy landowner who also thrives on loaning money to the African-American community.  Henry Ray buys the car on credit, promising to pay Trout weekly.  But when the car gets hit by a truck, it becomes clear that Henry Ray has been sold a rusty piece of crap.  He drives it back to Trout’s store and tells Trout either he fixes the car or Henry Ray is leaving the car behind.  Trout tells Henry Ray that he owes what he owes and Trout expects to get paid. Henry Ray leaves the car behind.

Trout then shows up at Mary McNutt’s house with his sidekick Buster Devone, a former police office fired for being overzealous in his treatment of the African-American community.  After a short verbal altercation with Henry Ray and his brother, Trout and Devonne chase Rosie and Ms. McNutt through the house – shooting both multiple times. Both men flee.  Rosie is taken to the hospital and shortly afterwards dies. Ms. McNutt lives and refuses to allow the doctors to remove the multiple bullets in her body.

Though Trout admits to the shooting, he is not arrested.  But instead is allowed to wander free and wait for trial.  He is eventually found guilty and sentenced by a jury but still manages to not spend any time in prison.

After the shooting any hold Trout had on his sanity (if he had any to begin with) starts to quickly unravel. His wife, Hanna, finds herself prisoner in her home and subject to severe abuse – these parts of the book were the hardest for me to read.  Trout’s lawyer, Harry Seagraves, represents him throughout the criminal trial but knows that something is just not right (yes, besides the whole shooting-a-child-for-no-reason thing).  Trout continues to remain unaccountable to anyone throughout the book and this lack of  accountability results in a very violent end – though arguably not any more violent that the beginning of this story.

I know what Dexter is trying to do here. A rich white man shoots a little black girl and the community merely shrugs.  But the community can’t exactly embrace Trout after he commits this crime so instead they ignore it.  They will find him guilty, sentence him and then just hope it all goes away.  They ignore that Trout is carrying loaded guns with him everything. They ignore that he is talking to himself, that he smells like urine, that he killed a little black girl because he was worried about not getting loan payments.  It is just easier that way.  This is not unlike what Brett Easton Ellis did in “American Psycho” where everyone ignores the ravings of the rich serial killer because “hey isn’t he just quirky and dressed so nice.” Ellis also addresses the off-center societal norm, which Dexter attempts to address as well.  But Dexter just isn’t as good.  His characters are not as interesting and, apart from Mary McNutt, his women characters, mainly Hanna Dexter, seem remote and one dimensional. At times the writing seems to lack the necessary emotion. The scene where Rosie was shot seemed detached and almost sterile – I could not tell if this was a writing techinique used to show Trout’s break from the reality of what he was doing or if it was just not the best writing.  Either way, I think it could have been done better.

Mary McNutt testifies during Trout’s trial that “[the jury] don’t decide what happened. It’s already done. All they decide is if they gone do something about it.”  And that is Dexter’s lesson – if everyone sits on their hands, eyes tightly shut, desparately hoping that it will all go away then it can only end badly for everyone. I get it but I do think there is better literature out there with the same lesson.  So maybe the real lesson is: read that other literature. Sorry Pete.

September 27, 2011 at 10:23 pm Leave a comment


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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