Review: We Come to Our Senses

 

Book by ODIE LINDSEY
Reviewed by JULIA LICHTBLAU

The fifteen stories in Odie Lindsey’s moving first collection, We Come to Our Senses,are war stories—but they feature little combat and no front-line heroics; nor are they of the war-is-hilarious-except-the-killing genre, such as Catch-22 or Fobbit. They’re stories of the PTSD generation, the all-volunteer, gender-integrated, post-don’t-ask-don’t-tell veterans of endless, metastasizing conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Written in a wry, poetic voice, Lindsey’s stories braid past and present into multiple narrative lines and often surprise us with which comes out on top at the end.

Like Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic, The Things They Carried, Lindsey’s book plumbs the psychic impact of war, but he takes his exploration farther from the battlefield. Many of Lindsey’s characters have no direct military experience, but are wounded by war nonetheless, sometimes fatally.

Publishers’ preference these days for linked short story collections can seem more a marketing device to make them resemble novels than a literary imperative. But Lindsey, a veteran and Southerner, is deeply embedded (to borrow a term) in his dual themes, and the structure enriches the stories without taking away their individuality. The military plays a key role in regional and personal heritage and male identity in the Southern states. The region hosts a disproportionate number of U.S. military bases and provides an outsized proportion of recruits. The cautionary message of these stories is that anyone can end up as collateral damage when a culture embraces and adulates war. Take Darla, a young woman who appears in the title story and two others and has never been on a battlefield. In Darla, the second of the collection and one of the most affecting, we learn that she was infected as a college sophomore with AIDS by:

“some faceless furlough named fucking Brent, who was a hometown friend of her college roommate; who showed up in Wrightsville Beach after being out-processed from Bragg; who crashed their spring break condo with his combat stories and crippled manhood; who rolled Kite cigarettes and who was built like David and who was a stopwatch lay…and who planted in her the seed of a hard, unending cough which would manifest a few months later, long after he was gone, and long before I fell in love with her…”

She is very sick, depressed, and the medicines make her wretched. Time is a little murky. No year is mentioned, but the Darla stories seem to be set in the late 1990s or early 2000s before the regime of anti-retroviral medications became effective enough for people to carry on relatively normally for decades with HIV. (Another clue, no cell phones.)

Of course, Brent, who never appears, is war-damaged himself.  But we hate him for the sake of the narrator—Darla’s hapless, self-sacrificing artist boyfriend, who has followed her from the city to a town near Jackson, Mississippi. He knows she’s going to leave him, because she’s from a genteel Southern family and has people here, and he’s an outsider and what we New Yorkers would call a schlemiel (can’t keep a job), even if he’s also a mensch (cleans up her vomit.) He channels his protective instincts toward the turtles that seem so determined to end up as road kill. She hovers at the fringes of abortion protests, uncertain where her allegiances lie.

Grieving and overwhelmed, the two break off an outing to a festival, to find a battlefield or some similarly sober place to sort out their relationship. On the way, he insists on stopping to rescue a hub-cap sized snapping turtle, at the risk of losing a finger, earning himself a weary reprieve from Darla.

The title story, though only nine pages, stretches taffy-like in time—set later thanDarla, but backtracking farther to their life in the mythic “city.” After two years in Mississippi, the narrator has sublimated his dislike of the South and resentment of Darla for landing them there (for being from there) by befriending “a couple of crypto-queer, misogynist rednecks” with an “addiction to camouflage.” Survival is no longer the issue. Her parents are supporting them. But he remains fixated on the days when he and Darla lived a low-rent hipster idyll by creating a surprisingly popular couple’s movie-critic blog and website, thanks to Darla’s Southern accent and wit. In this episode, he and his buddies decide to make a Super-8 horror film that involves dumping a putrid dog corpse on the lawn of one buddy’s ex-wife (an armed vet, as it turns out.) Darla bails him out of jail but calls it quits. She has come to her senses. Has he? Other characters in the collection recur in multiple stories, but the Darla saga, with its complicated backstory, has the ring of a novel in the making.

My favorite story, “Colleen,” is one of the most overtly military—the most heroic, in a way. Lindsey writes with particular empathy about women, and without doubting their bravery or willingness to take on combat roles, his narratives raise troubling questions about the all-gender military. Military training stimulates and channels sexual aggressiveness into combat readiness. I found it impossible to read Lindsey’s stories about women soldiers and not think about their vulnerability. Even the ones who are tough as nails, like Colleen, who “could break down and clean and refit and reassemble any standard issue rifle—SDM, A4, M16/AR-15, M203, any of it, faster than anyone in the battalion.” The daughter of a female veteran who has her own unresolved war issues, she returns from Iraq, unattached, detached, and hurting from someone named Van Dorn. She abruptly leaves the service, and her CO, having heard rumors, doesn’t try to stop her. There are funny moments that show us how much of a man’s world the military remains—giving a urine specimen under a sign that says: “…PEEL BACK FORESKIN IF APPLICABLE…”—but for the most part, the story expresses through clenched teeth the returning soldier’s silent determination to suck up her pain. She turns to the old soldier’s redoubt, the VFW lodge, is almost kicked out by the boys, then grudgingly and gradually welcomed.

“She chimed in on their conversations of farm equipment, and cursed harder and with more flourish than their wives or mothers or daughters. With whiskey-watered eyes and rounded consonants, they found that the binding link between all was the stinging legacy of plantar warts—a recognition that had them all guffawing.”

“Y’all still got that crazy in you…Still don’t know how to be home,” observes one of the men astutely. Then Corporal Van Dorn appears. I won’t reveal the showdown, except to say that it’s cathartic and gratifying as a classic war movie. Is it enough to free Colleen from “the track forged by someone else, by men; a map; a guidance system, a grid, thrusting her from point to point, repeat, repeat, the cycle punctured only by trauma?” Lindsey leaves us cheering and aching for her.

The war connection gets tenuous almost to the breaking point in “Chicks,” also the only outright funny story, though there’s humor even in the saddest pieces. This story illustrates Lindsey’s particular knack for weaving multiple narratives.

An aspiring screenwriter from South Carolina drags his romantic screenplay—“Young couple, desperate in love—only he’s shipping off to war”—around Los Angeles, while yearning for the perfect girl he met just before leaving for L.A. and telling himself he “knows chicks.” His screenplay is inspired by his grandparents’ idealized relationship—“created by pending and consequent separation… By man by woman by war—the end. There can be no other Southern narrative.” The terms of his self-inflicted separation make a funny and pathetic comparison. Lindsey does a good job of imitating the L.A. lingo. No one cares about his story because it ends on a kiss—no sex, no war. As Marcy, the Producer’s assistant, puts it:

“I understand where you’re trying to go. The whole, like woman-on-a-pedestal vibe? But listen to me—now. And remember this if you remember nothing else: that’s chauvinism, man, not chivalry. Period.” She stared at me for impact, then continued. “In two acts loaded with the thrust of a countdown romance, I’d better be getting the love fucked out of me.”

“Quit trying to be high-minded and slick. Focus on telling a story,” the Producer tells him. Meanwhile, our narrator has actually been telling us three stories. The screenplay fiasco earlier that day. How he met and left seven months ago the perfect girlfriend for the terrible business of selling himself. And the one happening now, while he drives and ruminates, in which he encounters a quarreling Mexican couple in a golden Cadillac at the gas station. The guy looks like someone out of Central Casting, but the girl is a knockout. Curses escalate to blows, and our hero intervenes in an attack of Southern chivalry, only to get himself clocked, while the woman steals his stuff, tosses his script, and rides off with the boyfriend. Yet, he tells himself—in a moment reminiscent of a cartoon—she will rediscover her innocence. Why does he continue to favor romance over experience? “Because I know about chicks.” Lindsey, in his wry, elliptical way embeds another message in this story that runs through the others as well and undergirds his theme: Never underestimate chicks. In the romantic view of war and (in certain stereotypes of the South), physical daring is a manly attribute, while women’s bravery is the less cinematic, long-suffering, home-front variety. The women in Lindsey’s stories take and give punches as hard as or harder than any guy, often to the astonishment of his male protagonists. In its warm heart, We Come to Our Senses loves women.

 

Julia Lichtblau is the Book Reviews Editor for The Common. Her work is forthcoming in Blackbird and has appeared in The DrumSuperstition ReviewAmerican Fiction 13Narrative, and The Florida Review, among other publications. She was one of two finalists for the 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Contest. 

Review: We Come to Our Senses

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