Book Review: The Road Ahead

April 24, 2017

 

I LOVED this book, and here is my review of The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, foreword by Roxana Robinson, cover photo and interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch. 368 pages. Pegasus, 2017.

 

Full of hauntings and hope, God and ghosts, The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, is a remarkable collection of 24 short stories written by some of the best authors of modern war literature, all whom are veterans.

 

If Holden Caulfield returned from war, he would be the veteran in Christopher Paul Wolfe story, Another Brother’s Conviction. Back in New York City, the veteran is in a corner store with a white one woman, a Dominican, a black man just released from Rikers and the Arabic shop keeper. This amazing passage takes place: “She eases up to Akhs counter and before she places her order, she stares at me like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ only to see me staring back at her like ‘Who the fuck are you?’ and somehow through one f those strange unwritten rules of New York nonverbal communication, our two ‘Who the fuck are yous’ seem to cancel each other out.” 

The story continues, and we realize the veteran returned from war with a self inflicted moral injury. The veteran is left with his own conviction, or lack there of.

 

In Brown Bird by Shannon Huffman Polson, war is an equal opportunity tormenter. A female veteran is back home at a new job. However, she cannot forget the death of a beloved sister-in-arms. 

 

The Church, by PJ Frederick, presents a sentence of words that should never be strung together in the English language but they are. Absurd and uncomfortably funny, the result of a suicide bomber. “We had three bomber’s heads but only one hand, which meant someone had to find the five others sprinkled amongst civilian bits.”

 

In Brian Castner's, The Wild Hunt, (spoiler alert) I flipped back the pages to find the sentence that marked the transitioning from life to death. I think when the medic says, ’You’re going home,’ is the moment his soul leaves his body, then hovers around while trying to make sense. To keep fighting, gloriously, larger than life, march on and conquer.  The veteran’s father appears, and says, “Micky…all is forgiven. You are welcome home anytime.”  Micky still lingers, refusing to pass over, and answers, “Dad, I have things to do. My squad needs me.”  Then, his grandfather, a  WWII vet, reassures him that it will be okay. “I want to tell you about the war Micky…Come walk with me.”

Finally the soldier lets go, knowing it’s safe and it’s time. Now I have no idea if this is what Castner had in mind when he wrote this beautiful story.  When the writer releases his or her story into the world, the reader may interpret something completely different than what he/she intends. Nonetheless, that’s what I took from it and for that I thank him.

 

In Funeral Conversation, by Nate Bethea, the main character, LT Longo, my new hero, wins the hearts and minds of Afghan villagers in the only way that they will understand. He beats up the village elder. Prior, his platoon sergeant flat out told his higher command on the radio that it was “not a good idea” to continue. The higher shamed the sergeant. Longo has not time for that, not his right hand NCO. People do snap and LT Longo did. Some readers may interpret the officer abandoning his professionalism or discrediting himself, however, I think many will read he does the exact opposite. He kept his men safe and maintained his NCO’s dignity. The platoon was not attacked that night, and the respect he did earn from his men and the villagers in the end justifies his means.

 

Salt, by Colin Halloran, explores the tastes of war, and what wearing the US military represents. “They weren’t targeting me, not really. The Taliban or whoever they worked for didn’t give a shit about some kid from Upstate. They probably didn’t even know what Upstate is. They were targeting the idea of me, or what they though was the idea of me, of the uniform. In war, you can’t take death threats personally.”

 

After the obligatory “Thank you for your service,” the first question is often, “So what was it like?” Brandon Caro, in his tragicomedy, The Morgan House, answers that question, revealing the remarkable bond that veterans share, even though never serving together. “Oh yeah?” he barked, part condescending, part curious “What was that like? Afghanistan?” “It was hot,” I answered, and he laughed, and rolled his back a moment.

 

Benjamin Busch, in his Into the Land of Dogs, a Marine who walks out of the recovery ward once back at the hospital in Texas and finds himself back in Afghanistan, carrying the helmet filled with the head of his dead pilot. It’s magical realism at it’s finest.

 

Two stories provide a snapshot of the personal lives of of civilians in-country.

 In Pawns, by Kristin Rouse, an Afghani truck driver, waits in line ‘outside the wire’ to deliver supplies to the American base. Maurice Emerson Decaul’s Death of Time, is told from a teen girl who is captured by the ‘Outsiders’ (ISIS) and used as a sex slave.

 

Like any anthology, written by men and women with different styles and techniques, readers will not connect with all stories. I thought several were out of place in this otherwise high quality collection. However, if you like one particular story, you can easily go on to read the author’s other work. Many have acclaimed full length novels.

 

Green on Blue: A Novel 2016, by Elliot Ackerman 

Dust to Dust: A Memoir, 2013, by Benjamin Busch,

Afghan Post, 2014, by Adrian Bonenberger, 

Old Silk Road, 2015, by Brandon Caro.

The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, 2013,

and All the Ways We Kill and Die, 2016, by Brian Castner,

A Hard and Heavy Thing, 2016, by Matthew Hefti

Love my Rifle More than You, 2006, by Kayla Williams

 

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