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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

War stories: 2 in Best American Short Stories 2014

I'm pretty sure I posted on Will Mackin's story Kattekoppen when I first read it in the New Yorker, but last night read it again in Best American Short Stories 2014 and was (again) impressed, mostly with his ability to establish a tone that feels both authentic and unfamiliar: Navy SEALs, one would think, are not populated by a lot of literary guys, especially ones familiar with the art of Breughel and for that matter the poetry of Auden, but Mackin makes his first-person narrator credible and insightful and he tells of a force on duty in Afghanistan. His voice establishes a macho insouciance about death and destruction and a somewhat surprising indifference to, defiance of actually, the military hierarchy - these guys play by their own rules and know that no mere lieutenant can tell them otherwise. Story involves the SEALs commandeering a guy to help them by plotting weaponry deployment - the guy they shanghai is willing to join the unit but notes that he needs to go home on leave briefly when wife delivers - they OK that arrangement (we see how they, not commanding officers, set the rules); the guy is Dutch and he gets shipments of candies from home, including the much-loathed licorice catheads of the title. While he goes on his leave a couple of soldiers are captured, and the SEALs spend a few days trying for a rescue and, eventually, a body recovery. The bodies are molding and rotting by the time of recovery; the candies help dull the senses enabling the soldiers to bag the bodies for transport. When Dutch soldier returns he tells of his anxious fears that his infant son will stop breathing - a strange sense of the fragility of life set against the ever-present closeness of death and cool acceptance of danger in the military world. This is a story of pure combat - not a moment of contemplating the long-range goals, the purpose, the politics, or the mission - just soldiers doing a job. Interestingly, the adjacent story in this anthology (arranged alphabetically by author), Evie M (by O A Lindsey), is also a story of military trauma, this one about a female veteran returned to civilian life, much disturbed and damaged and unable to manage her precarious finances and the tedium of office work, which seems to befuddle her - a sad story of the unexpected and untreated wounds of war.

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