book review

War, Drugs, and Other Extremes in the Post-Post-9/11 Novel

Photo: Vulture

Without quite knowing it, we are now deep into the era of the post-post-9/11 novel. For fiction writers under 40, the attacks, the foreign wars that followed them, the financial crisis, and the opioid epidemic are less disruptions in the national fabric than permanent, almost natural, conditions of life in America. In a book like Nico Walker’s August autobiographical novel Cherry, the (anti-)hero’s story follows a certain logic that mirrors recent history as well as the author’s own life: from enlistment, to service at war, to a post-traumatic return home, to student debt and heroin addiction, and finally to desperate criminal acts and incarceration.

Two novels that have appeared in the weeks since Cherry — Stephen Markley’s Ohio and Elliot Ackerman’s Waiting for Eden — depict similar visions of an aftermath America, populated by characters scarred by war and crisis. Like Cherry, these are novels with scenarios that run to extremes, but they are invented extremes. Philip Roth argued in 1961 that American writers have their “hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” If American novelists are engaged in a perpetual battle with American headlines, then it will be a battle they usually lose. As a decorated war veteran, opioid addict, and convicted bank robber, Walker had the advantage of being a headline before he ever became an author. Though they bring their own authentic experiences to the table — in the heartland and at war, respectively — Markley and Ackerman both push their imaginations to the limit and in different (practically opposite) ways, their novels betray an anxiety about the place of fiction in a time of social upheaval and war.

Markley is a hoarder of spectacular and gruesome incidents. Among other events, his novel includes an attack on a suburban mosque, a massacre of children in Iraq, a heroin addict who burns down his apartment building, a group of high-school football players who are serial gang rapists, and an elaborate revenge murder. That’s not to mention episodes of homophobia, substance abuse, barroom assaults, drug overdoses, and another murder conspiracy. Those are the book’s more gothic elements. Another strand of Ohio — which may take up more of its 500 pages than the sensational bits — is sweetly nostalgic, if often also corny. Formally, Ohio is an ensemble melodrama: I often found myself thinking of it as Ohio, Actually. The blend of the banal, the generic, and the outrageous is awkward, to put it politely.

The frame is a night in 2013 when four natives of New Canaan, a fictional town in northwest Ohio, return home, occasioning fateful happenings. A decade out of high school, the novel’s four focal characters fall into four types: the deadbeat, the grad student, the war vet, and the Walmart employee. For people in their late 20s they’ve been through a lot: each has a problem or traumatic experience that prompts Markley to turn up the volume on his prose. Bill Ashcraft, an alcoholic and an occasional leftist protester, drives back to Ohio from New Orleans with a mysterious package, having taken acid:

Through Tennessee and Nashville and the bluegrass hills of Kentucky, through July, a month of electric heat hallucination and erotic moons, the fields were on fire on all sides, and the flames rose thousands of feet in the air until they scorched the underbellies of passenger jets. Only the highway was a cool river of water through which he could be assured safe passage. The rest of it burned like blood on fire. Cruising along Eisenhower’s interstate baby with the setting sun on his left spilling some mystic aurora across the addled sky, he thought he could feel his brain bleeding.

This overwriting — a little bit Hendrix and a little bit Tom Wolfe — is characteristic of Markley’s bombastic mode.

When he’s operating at a lower frequency, Markley often relies on pop culture references and personal taste as short cuts to dramatic significance and characterization, marks of a novel composed under the spell of social media. Stacey Moore, the literature grad student, had an affair with a girl in high school, Lisa — since vanished aside from the stray Facebook message (one of the novel’s rather strained plotlines) — which caused a rupture with her Christian family. Markley handles this material sensitively, but throws away a meaningful early moment in their story, having them hold hands at Casablanca — a retro reference without much resonance. Iraq War veteran Dan Eaton often thinks of life in terms of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. One of his buddies in Iraq is an Alanis Morissette fanatic. Facebook in Ohio is a cord that tethers its characters to high school, a set of ever-vivid emotions and ineradicable bonds and grudges — in the schema of this novel anyway.

Markley is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, a screenwriter, and the author of two memoirs, but not a veteran of the armed services or a war journalist. Much of his war material is stagey and inauthentic. When it comes time for Dan both to suffer his defining wound and to commit his defining crime, Markley heaps on the detail and switches the narrative into the second person. After an explosion hits his vehicle, Eaton enters a fugue state and conflates a teenager holding a cell phone with someone who killed one of his friends years ago: “You raise your weapon at the threat, at the laughing, and sort them all out with about twenty rounds which hack bits of bone and hair skyward. You make sure this group of kids falls in your line of fire and they go down so easily, so serenely, and now there are all these little bodies, maybe five, maybe more, and a lot of very clean-looking blood …”

Delivered in a single paragraph that stretches across four pages, the slo-mo narration of a mass murder has sympathy-generating exculpatory effects. This war crime is a sort of reflex action invented by the author that has little to do with the character as we know him and probably less to do with the way massacres have been committed during the actual Iraq War. As the journalist and novelist Nick McDonnell shows in his new study The Bodies in Person, such episodes of collateral damage are rarely so theatrical.
They’re often the result of airstrikes and occur in spite of long deliberation and elaborate surveillance.

The gang rape that constitutes the central trauma for career-stalled Walmart employee Tina Ross is treated tenderly by Markley, even if the prurient foreshadowing of the event throughout the novel is overdone. Tina is coerced by a boy she loves, groomed by a fellow victim overtaken by Stockholm syndrome, and wakes up without knowing what her boyfriend and his football teammates have done to her, only that it hurts. The gravity of this scene is undone by what follows: an absurdly rendered payback scene that makes a mockery of the motivating trauma.

A similar paradox plagues the novel as a whole. As is obvious from his title, Markley wants to paint a panoramic portrait of small-town Ohio, and a decline from youth and prosperity just after the millennium to dysfunction and decay a decade later. He knows the territory intimately and adds a layer of cogent if broadly familiar Rust Belt sociology. And yet, not being content with a narrative that mines ordinary life — or settles, like Cherry, on one story of an outlier — Markley winds up with a sensationalist heap: The temptation to compete with American media reality leads him to prize hyperreal plots over the merely realistic. In style as well as content, the result is overstuffed and often ludicrous.

Waiting for Eden, by contrast, is a work of minimalism, and it runs to only one extreme. The title character is a casualty of the Iraq War, flown from the battlefield to Germany and then San Antonio: “the most wounded man from both wars. As advanced as medicine had become, that likely made him the most wounded man in the history of war, and they’d just kept him alive from one side of the world to the other.” “They” are the nurses on board, who lose another, much less severely wounded casualty on the way. This is the setup for a hospital bed narrative, and that’s what most of Waiting for Eden is.
The narrator is Eden’s best friend, and he happens to be a ghost, because he died sitting beside Eden in the precipitating attack. This lends him both a personal stake in the story and a convenient omniscience. He tells of meeting with his nearly departed friend in a dreamlike white space that evokes an eschatological version of the digital cloud. The idea that Eden is more than just another locked-in coma patient burdens the novel with an existential weight that the rest of the narrative can’t quite bear.

From Eden’s hospital room there are two ways to go: forward toward his inevitable death, and backward to the emotional tangle that led to his fatal deployment. There’s little of novelistic interest in the first direction: Will he die before his wife Mary agrees to end his life? It’s no spoiler to say that question will take two years to answer, such that the daughter born after his arrival home is nearing school age for most of the book. What sensations will he have on the way? A vibrating phone will cause him to feel he’s being swarmed by cockroaches — a fear that dates back to his SERE training — and he’ll use his teeth to tap out Morse Code for END. There’s quantified brain damage, blinking eyes and blank stares, a heart attack. Eden’s life is life in name only.

In the other direction flows a backstory involving his daughter’s biological paternity, and since the novel has only three main characters — Eden, Mary, and the narrator — it unfolds in a predictable fashion. This aspect of the story might be more gripping if Ackerman’s characterizations weren’t so deliberately thin. Of Mary and Eden we know that they grew up in the same small town and “ran into each other” as they were both escaping it. On the night they graduated from SERE school, the narrator says of Eden: “I watched him pound five pints of Guinness in almost as many minutes. He held it all down, too. But I’ll tell you that if you ever went over to his house for dinner he wouldn’t serve Guinness, he’d likely do all the cooking and serve you a bottle of wine he’d chosen specially for your visit.” It’s difficult to tell whether this is supposed to mark Eden as a guy’s guy who’s also cultivated or just paint the narrator as a simpleton. As for Mary, she’s beautiful and she wants a baby. With Eden suffering from something like PTSD-induced impotence, cue the adultery plot, a soap opera without bubbles.

Ackerman served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, won a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, and has written two previous novels. The first, Green on Blue, looked at the war in Afghanistan from the perspective of an Afghan soldier; the second, Dark at the Crossing, charted intrigue on the border between Turkey and Syria, and was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. Those books were praised for delving into the lives of their mostly non-Western characters. Waiting for Eden is about American wounds and, if viewed allegorically, a wounded America. Yet for all the authentic detail Ackerman musters, his book is as solemn and inert as Markley’s is antic and addled. Two more casualties in the war to outdo American reality.

War, Drugs, and Other Extremes in the Post-Post-9/11 Novel