J.A. Moad II is a a former Air Force C-130 pilot, English Professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, fiction editor and blogger for War, Literature & the Arts(WLA). He is the recipient of the 2014 Consequence Magazine Fiction Award, and is editing a draft of a novel about an American military in a not too-distant future.
A reflection on Jesse Goolsby’s debut novel,
I’ve spent two decades reading, critiquing and writing about War Literature, and for the first time in years I found myself pausing to reread passages, reflecting on the language and lingering over a page as the images washed over me. By the time I finished reading this rich and compelling new novel, I realized something significant had occurred: the expectations of the genre have been transformed. The debut of this novel marks an important literary event. I’ll never view the fiction of our current wars in quite the same way.
As much as I wanted to reflect on this novel from simply a War Literature perspective, I realized that doing so would be a disservice. Unlike much of the fiction emerging from a decade and a half of war, this novel defies expectations and transcends what many readers often expect from the genre. It not only captures the Veteran experience, but it delves much deeper, mining the human longing for connection, a yearning for acceptance and the search for identity in the Twenty-First Century. As the daughter of one Veteran reminds us in the book, “We’re only what we’ve been. What you want to be means nothing.”
The novel examines the repercussions of our decisions as both individuals and as a nation.
Goolsby takes us on a journey with three soldiers. We’re transported back and forth across the years, from their shared time in Afghanistan to their days as boys growing up in a fragmented society, and to their lives years after the war. Through layered prose that resonates across time, he renders the complexities of young men transformed into soldiers. Unsentimental, with vivid and precise imagery, what emerges is a finely woven American tapestry — depictions of people struggling across the nation, from the East coast to the West, the small towns, landscapes and broken places within these young men, the soldiers they become, their families and the communities that helped define them. And yet, at its core, the work is about relationships, fathers and sons, lovers, sisters, mothers, and daughters, each of them rooted in a longing for acceptance and the desire to redefine a life forever altered by soldiers going off to war.
The novel examines the repercussions of our decisions as both individuals and as a nation. As a writer who understands the emotional toll of serving, Goolsby forces us to gaze unflinchingly inside the lives of these soldiers, the people who surround them, and the places they call home. Like all great literature, the work asks as much from the reader as it gives, prompting us to question, who are we, and how to move ahead in the aftermath of everything we’ve seen and done? As one character informs us:
He now knew that the pain of war, of the past two decades, of yesterday, would never recede all the way; the hurt simply finds new things to infect, things he has always loved — Christmas lights, interstate signs, hunting campfires, baseball games — but happiness and release also live somewhere among these things. He knew it was just a matter of finding them.
Whether it’s betrayal, the call of the sirens, the trauma of war, a bullet in search of an elusive target, or the enduring mental and physical pain resonating across generations, this evocative novel compels us to walk with these men — to discover what they and their families can tell us. Their experiences become ours, and what we discover and rediscover is that joining the military is always about absence, about the search for a definitive experience, departure and loss, the changes that ensue, and a return to a place each soldier once called home. Each day becomes an attempt to reconcile between the life they once knew and a present that is inextricably scarred by their experiences.
This novel shows us all the scars, reminds us of the broken parts within each of us, and the fragile world on which we try to ground ourselves. It is a reminder that whenever we return, we listen for the call of our name, for some hint that we matter, an echo of who we were, always and forever searching for ourselves across the years in a place we’ve lost along the way.
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