Hello, Story366! Your short story blogger has been fighting some kind of virus or something the last day or two, as he’s sore all over and has trouble staying awake, especially if his head is against something, be it soft like a pillow or hard like my office chair. Another symptom? He starts referring to himself in third person. He better get over this quick, lest he lose readers.
For today’s post, I read from Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning collection Redeployment from Penguin. I’ve read a story or two from this before—one of my students presented on “Bodies” in a class last year, my introduction to Klay—but I had the pleasure of reading the first three selections in the book tonight, including today’s focus, “Redeployment.”
A little background before we go into the story. Since Klay won the National Book Award, his profile is pretty big—he was the last guest on Colbert, actually, before the big finale—and all this may be obvious. Still, it’s important to note that Klay is a Marine (inactive), a veteran of Iraq during the surge, as well as a writer with an MFA. “Redeployment” was his first published story, and that appeared in Granta, which is an impressive debut.
It’s important to not that Klay is a veteran, as this whole book is about Marines, serving in Iraq, home from Iraq, etc. In my classes, I talk a lot about students writing outside themselves, that they don’t have to just “write what they know,” which I’ve never seen as good advice. A little imagination and a little research, and writers should be able to write characters they don’t know. A bachelor should be able to write married people, right? No one’s going to argue that. A writer should be able to write about a plumber, a teacher, a cop, etc., even if they’ve never done those jobs, because otherwise, all books would be about writers and aspiring writers. Who wants that?
The one exception might be writing about the military. In fact, it is the one exception. Ever since my first workshop, when I sat next to this Marine vet named Brad, it’s been made plear to me that non-military people shouldn’t write military. For one, there’s all the technical jargon, all the vernacular, that a person can’t catch up on by watching Platoon and reading Wikipedia. On top of that, though, it seems like civilian-types don’t have the right to write about those topics. Taking that on (and botching it up) is almost akin to stolen valor. Maybe you disagree, and if so, get something going in the Comments section, as I’d love to discuss.
In any case, it’s a good thing that Klay is around to write those stories for us civilian-types. “Redeployment” follows the return home of a Marine, Sergeant Price, who served in Iraq, saw combat, watched his best friend killed in action. The story starts with his company’s return trip to the States, including a stop in Ireland for fuel (and Guinness). Klay is deliberate in this trip, as the trip is important, how the Marines act. Everyone is antsy, everyone anxious to get home, but once they’re there—family and friends waiting at the base’s airstrip—they all know that their lives will be very different, that seeing those family and friends isn’t going to be easy. It’s hard for Price to look his wife, Cheryl, in the eye, let alone live with her, love her.
The subplot of “Redployment” employs a metaphor, and, fair warning, involves the shooting of dogs. The first line of the story, as a matter of fact, is “We shot dogs,” and that not only sets the tone, but shows us Price’s metamorphosis. Before deployment, he wouldn’t do a lot of the things he does now that he’s home. So, if you’re a softie for canines like I am, be prepared: The emotional (and actual) climax of the story goes down this path.
Most of all, Klay really delivers on the authenticity of the voice. Reading his stories is almost like reading another language, maybe an offshoot of English, so much terminology, so many acronyms to keep up with. Most of it’s translatable in context, though, and doesn’t slow the prose, doesn’t make the stories confusing. Klay’s good at balancing that super-real pattern of speech and readability. I was entranced by these stories, by the emotional punch each one packs, and the writing. Klay’s book is excellent.
Phil Klay’s Redeployment has garnered a lot of awards, and now that I’m about halfway throught it, I can see why. The stories are war stories, and they’re great war stories, full of tragedy, authenticity, humanity, and surprises. If you haven’t caught this one yet, I suggest you do.