10 Dec / Redeployment by Phil Klay
This year, the venerable National Book Foundation has clearly favorited Phil Klay. First he was bestowed the youthful “5 Under 35” mantel, and then finished out with the coveted National Book Award for Fiction. Over the summer, he also made the shortlist for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. And yes, of course, he’s currently topping all those ‘best-of’ lists. Seriously major honors for a debut title indeed.
As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq’s Anbar Province for 13 months over 2007 into 2008, Klay used writing fiction to process his experiences: “… writing the book was the only way that I knew how to start thinking [about answers to impossibly difficult questions he faced after returning from war],” he said in his emotional, tightly-held-together NBA acceptance speech, “… not just ’cause there’s a rigor involved in turning fictional stories into some kind of an emotional truth, but because when you write, it opens up the possibility of other people responding … for me, writing this book … I can’t think of a more important conversation to be having. War’s too strange to be processed alone.” To make the conversation as effective as possible, Klay got his MFA at Hunter College to speak clearly to civilians, and attended the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop to communicate accurately with fellow military. Clearly, he was prepared.
In Redeployment, Klay takes on the first-person narratives of 12 diverse soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, of various ages, backgrounds, and responsibilities; audible narrator Craig Klein breathes haunting life into each. Some of Klay’s troubled dozen are caught in the horrors of war, others are trying to readjust to what comes after survival.
The titular “Redeployment” – quite possibly’s the dozen’s best – opens the collection with visceral horror, about a soldier who finally comes home to his wife after shooting too many corpse-eating canines in the “no-shit war zone,” and has to face a wrenchingly uncertain future for their own beloved, aging dog. In “After Action Report,” one soldier takes responsibility for a killing he didn’t commit, hoping to shield his younger friend from the guilt and grief of taking another person’s life. In “Bodies,” a young man who shocks his high school girlfriend by enlisting, gets assigned to Mortuary Affairs and deals with body parts, both enemy and friendly.
“Money As a Weapons System” confronts the mismanagement of U.S. dollars in a surreal, blackly comic situation of forcing baseball gloves, then uniforms, onto local Iraqi youths who have no interest in the American sport, merely for the sake of a photo opportunity to send back to an unsuspecting Congressman. “In Vietnam They Had Whores” examines the desperation to make any sort of human connection, but sometimes paying for companionship proves to be more lonely than being alone. “Prayer in the Furnace” presents a military chaplain who must come to terms with frightening secrets revealed by a soldier about his less-than-honorable fellow men who have seemingly lost their humanity in the labyrinthine nightmares of war.
Words seem hardly worthy to describe what Klay manages to capture in his stories, but know this: war as a faraway, faceless machine is an impossible façade to maintain after reading Redeployment. Dead dogs and people, lost sons and missing friends, eternal disconnects and humanity forever lost, the price of living after so much suffering … for those who can only imagine what happens from the relative safety of miles and screens away, Klay demands we look much, much closer at the “no-shit war zone” where soldiers and trapped civilians live, fight, hide, die, so that the majority of us will never have to face such terrors ourselves. After Redeployment – regardless of your personal politics – denial is no longer an option.