It’s not as though the military fiction canon ignores social commentary; books like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 certainly have a lot to say. But while many celebrated works in the genre feature criticisms of war and the armed services, water & power is the first of them I’ve encountered whose critiques discuss the racism, sexism, and homophobia running rampant in military culture. (At least in Navy culture, which the book focuses on.) The most climactic moments are not just battles and bombings—they’re also things like the Tailhook Scandal, a three-day symposium after which eighty-three women and seven men reported sexual misconduct. “A group of up to two hundred men who lined the corridor outside the hospitality suites around 10:30 each night” engaged in behaviors ranging from “consensual pats on the breasts and buttocks to violent grabbing, groping, clothes-stripping, and other assaultive behavior.” Steven Dunn, a Black West Virginia native, experienced Navy culture close up during his ten years of service.
This is the first in a series of features highlighting the Black writers our editors and staff have been reading. To read The Common’s statement in support of the nationwide protests against anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, click here.
Recommended by Elly Hong, Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow
The cover of water & power calls it a novel. Both author Steven Dunn and the book’s narrator describe it as a “fictional ethnography,” and this broader term is perhaps a more fitting description of a book that defies classification. Most of water & power resembles a novella in flash, written in prose that comes in bursts no longer than a page. Yet there are also moments of poetry, as well as photographs, found documents, and collages. The book’s dynamic structure was immediately striking, and both its form and its content continued to stun me as I read.