“The Dancing Bear” by Maxim Loskutoff

Happy Friday, Story366! Glad to be posting today, this last day of November. I’m also more than happy to put off some end-of-the-semester grading, shopping, and light-hanging. If that’s the case, you might see twenty-five or so more entries between now and Christmas. We’ll see.

Today’s entry is a bit delayed, as in I’d read a few stories from the middle of Maxim Loskutoff‘s debut collection, Come West and See (out this year from Norton), some time back in early August. I was all set to write up a post, but just didn’t. I was in Chicago with my boys, staying with my mom, and had just worked my last extended homestand at Wrigley Field of the season. I don’t remember the details exactly anymore, but several things went wrong, the most memorable of which was my car dying in my mom’s driveway. I’d loaded it up, had my kids ready to go, but when I turned the key, it stalled. Or, it never even whimpered. I had just driven it not an hour before, too. What was up? My brother tried to jump me, but that didn’t work, so I called AAA—I actually had to reup with them right there and then—and the guy came out, jumped me, said I was good. To be safe, I left my car running for a half an hour to charge the battery, then ran for gas for the trip. After gassing up, I tried to start my car and again, nothing. Zilch. I was stuck at the pump. I called AAA again—they were confused: had the first guy not come?—and as I waited, some dude in an awesomely orange Dodge Charger jumped me instead. That worked. I went back to my mom’s, got my boys, and headed out on the road toward Missouri.

I pretty much needed a new battery, but there was also a chance I needed an alternator or even a starter. I really didn’t have the time to wait around—I forget what was going on the next day, but I had to be back in Missouri—and since this was all happening on a Sunday, there were no garages open to get me a new starter or alternator. So, that day, I drove all the way back to Missouri … without turning off my car. Really, this wasn’t that tough, as I don’t stop much, anyway. Two tricks, though: 1) I’d need to stop once for gas, and 2) my kids would have to go to the bathroom.

What I ended up doing was stopping somewhere on the far side of St. Louis, chanting to myself as I pulled into a station: Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car …, as I’m the type of guy who can drive six hours, use up a whole tank of gas, thinking the whole time how I don’t want my car to stall on the way and have to call AAA for a third time in one day, but then absentmindedly turn off the car as soon as I was in park. My boys were chanting with me: Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car …, and thank God, it worked. We got gas—it’s only mildly dangerous to pump with your car running, right?—then pulled up to the side door of a Lion’s Choice—there’s never anyone at those—and all ran in to pee, leaving the car running outside. We were out in about forty seconds and back at it, on the way home.

By the time I pulled to a spot in front of my house, we’d been driving almost nine hours, the car running the whole time. I turned the car off, took a deep breath, and tried to start it again: Nothing. This car was not going to run again without a charge, without maintenance. The next morning, my kids wherever they had to be, I called AAA, the guy came out, told me he was sure it was the battery and not the starter or the alternator, and jumped me so I could drive to the battery store. At the battery store, I explained what was going on, that I couldn’t shut off my car, and the techs let me pull right into a bay. The fixed me up with a reasonable battery and my car was good.

Sometime between then and now, I had in my mind that I’d be relaying this story in a post on Loskutoff, probably within a day or two. Then I couldn’t find the book. Then I couldn’t remember the stories as well and knew I’d have to reread. Then I got other books. Then I found the book but didn’t have time for a post. Then I lost it again. Then, we cleaned for Thanksgiving, I found the book under the couch, and here I am, nine days later, finally sharing my stupidity with all of you.

I decided to read different stories from Come West and See this time around, just so I could get further into the book, and I’m glad I did. Back in August, I’d scrounged through the middle, picked a story here or there, but today, I read the first three selections and am glad I did. I remember liking what I’d read before, but today, I feel like I understand Loskutoff and his project a lot better than I did over the summer. The book’s front inside jacket talks about it being a collection of linked stories, and for one, when I’d read back in August, I saw no evidence of that and wouldn’t have mentioned it (which mighta made me look kinda dumb). Today, that project is much clearer, so I at least want to mention it. A lot of (but not all) the stories in the book deal with this event, surrounding the Redoubt, an isolated piece of land in Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. The Redoubt has been proposed as an animal sanctuary of sorts, but also as a safe haven for right-leaning libertarians. From what I can tell, it’s a movement created by folks who want to live out in this beautiful, isolated region and just be left alone, free from government intervention. Mostly, at least. Of course, the government can’t just give up a huge chunk of its property to groups who want it, no matter what their cause, so the people who want this end up clashing with the government. It gets to the point where the Redoubters are viewed as a militia, doing illegal things, though their supporters look at them as patriots and heroes. Isn’t that how this goes, the different between patriot and traitor just a matter of perspective?

So this is the backdrop of Loskutoff’s book, but again, not every story deals directly with the Redoubt. In fact, this morning, I only came across this theme in the third story, “Daddy Swore an Oath,” about a woman whose husband is stuck in the middle of a standoff, leaving her alone to raise their two young boys as reporters circle their house. The second story, “End Times,” is about a couple driving a wounded coyote—whom they’ve semi-adopted—to a no-questions-asked vet, hoping to save its life, as well as their relationship. Today I’m going to write about the lead story, however, “The Dancing Bear,” which serves as a prologue to the whole venture. “The Dancing Bear” is placed by itself at the start of book, under the heading “Montana Territory, 1893,” and after that story, we get another heading, “Come West and See,” which is the rest of the book. So, prologue.

In any case, “The Dancing Bear” is about this guy named Bill who, as advertised, lives twenty-two miles outside of Missoula in the Montana Territory, in 1893. He’s a successful trapper, able to live off the land in his little cabin, eating venison and wrapping himself in warm skins. Missoula is a day’s walk away, but he often goes months without sojourning into town. He’s got everything he needs at his cabin.

Almost. Bill seems kind of lonely. Or, really, really, really lonely. So much so, the eight-foot female grizzly bear who’s eating from the apple tree outside his cabin gets him thinking. At first, Bill’s just appreciative of this majestic creature, the way it stands on its hind legs and reaches apples on the highest branches, moving about like the dancing bear he saw in a Ringling Bros. sideshow years before. It’s so graceful and elegant, he doesn’t even shoot it, despite how much a full grizzly pelt would fetch him on the fur market. By the end of the bear’s first visit, however, appreciation turns to arousal, as Bill, standing naked in his door way (because of course he’s naked), finds himself aroused. After a bit of self-searching, Bill pleasures himself, watching the bear gorge herself on apples. When she leaves, he thinks about her the rest of the day. The bear returns several mornings, all of which become Bill’s time for good old self-abuse, standing at his threshold, both bear and man tending to their basic needs.

Because this is a bear, the grizzly eventually has enough to eat and disappears for hibernation. This leaves Bill heartbroken and again alone, so he tries to substitute piles of furs for his slumbering, absent lady. When this doesn’t work, Bill journeys into Missoula, looking to find some female company. As it turns out, Bill used to frequent a brothel run by a woman named Bad Lucy, but stopped going when he proposed to his favorite girl, asked her to come live with him in his cabin, and she politely declined. Rejection made Bill isolate himself at his cabin, never returning until his bear mistress left him for the winter. Bill picks out a new lover-for-hire, but quickly shuns her when he discovers she is not as hirsute as he’s grown accustomed to—who would be?—and he again leaves, swearing never to come back.

Bill sweats out the winter, as we’re jumped ahead to March, when Bill’s lady love returns. This time, she’s not alone: She has a cub. Like any dude interested in a single mom, the kid poses certain challenges.

I won’t go into those challenges here, as really, I’ve done enough summarizing of this piece, one I enjoyed reading a whole lot. Aside from the general fun of reading a story about a lonely guy getting all horny over a bear, I see how this story sets up Luskutoff’s themes, what he’s going for throughout Come West and See. Man’s relationship with nature and its animals is tenuous, sometimes love-hate, just like Bill’s relationship with this mama grizzly. Sometimes, people do things to help animals, like not shoot them when they’re feasting on your apple tree. Other times, we do stupid shit like put deer jerky in the tree so the bear will come back, even when all the apples are gone (“Don’t Feed the Bears!”). We can appreciate animals, share their environment, be part of their ecosystem, but it’s a thin line between this cohabitation on taking things too far. Maybe we eat the animals and use their furs to keep us from freezing, and that’s one thing; after all, animals eat each other in the wild all the time. But when we fuck with their eating and hunting habits so we can get a nut off? We’re doing more harm than good—and I haven’t even revealed the end of the story.

This theme grows exponentially with the Redoubt conflict, the idea of leaving something alone that’s better off left alone … though with an agenda. At least from what I can tell without reading too many books on the subject. Maxim Loskutoff captures a part of that in his stories—”End Times” utilizes it just as well—but also manages to write extremely entertaining and engaging fiction, set in gorgeously rendered landscapes, taking his readers on journeys that we probably haven’t been on before. You can tell I like this book from how many adverbs I’m throwing out there. I just saw this book on a bunch of year-end lists, including NPR’s huge array. It’s good stuff. You should check it out, one of my favorites from 2018.

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“Unnatural Habitats” by Angela Mitchell

Happy Friday, Story366! Today marks the first post I’ve made in a while that wasn’t prompted by something or other, or didn’t present an immediate theme. In late October, I wrote about Donald Quist’s new book the day he visited Missouri State and gave a reading. A couple of weeks ago, I did a Halloween post on Sarah Layden, which didn’t turn out to be all that scary, though it felt like I could say it was the thought that counts. Then, earlier this week, on Veteran’s Day, I wrote about Will Mackin, which was serendipitous, as I just wanted to do a post and Will Mackin just happened to be a vet. Today, though, I again wanted to get a post up, and I’ve wanted to read Angela Mitchell‘s book for a while. If today is Bobcat Day or something, then I’ve lucked onto it again. Otherwise, this is just a normal post on a pretty normal Friday. With the holidays looming in less than a week (!), I’ll take normal.

There is a bit of a homer quality to Mitchell’s work, as she is a Missouri writer, and more specifically, an Ozarks writer, from Southern Missouri, where she still owns a farm. I’ve known about her and her stories for a while and am glad that WTAW Press put Unnatural Habitats out this fall. Other than the writers I know and work with here in Springfield, there’s not a ton of Ozarks writers with whom I’m familiar, other than Daniel Woodrell, who’s the guy, the writer everyone associates with the region. I know they’re out there and working in a lot of different genres, but it’s nice to read Mitchell’s stories, see the references to Branson and Silver Dollar City and so forth. Who doesn’t like familiarity? I know I do, so reading these stories felt comfortable to me, like I knew the people and places as I stumbled across them.

Mitchell writes longer stories, so there’s only six in the book, and at least three of them involve Gary. Gary, however, seems to fit as secondary character in these pieces, the stories told from other points of view. Because I like to read the title story when there is one, I started with the forty-something-page “Unnatural Habitats” first, which is also the last story—this means I got earlier Gary adventures, depicted in earlier stories, in backstory. I went back and read “Retreat,” an earlier Gary tale, which was kind of like watching the Star Wars prequels, knowing Anakin is going to become Darth Vader, no matter what happens in Episode II. But, I’ve had this happen before and soldiered through. Plus, I did enjoy reading about Gary in retrospect, even knowing what was coming. Mitchell’s a good story writer and it’s not like the specific hows and whys weren’t interesting—they were.

I’m still writing about “Unnatural Habitats,” though, because it’s the title story, I like it best of the stories I’ve read, and it seems like it really hits on the theme of unnatural habitats. “Unnatural Habitats” is the story of Layton Vines, this recently well-to-do, almost-middle-aged guy living in a lush new subdivision in Northern Arkansas. He, his wife, Sheila, his son, Elijah, and a few other unnamed kids live in a house so big, they can all have a giant TV and couch and room to themselves without ever meeting each other. In fact, Layton doesn’t seem to run into his family much at all, which is the only thing he likes about his giant house, not its extravagance really to his taste—this is the first indication of the theme, unnatural habitats, as Layton doesn’t like where he lives, doesn’t belong. He’s basically an old hillbilly—though he pointedly denies it—out of his element, but needed something to put his money into, somewhere to put his indeterminably large family.

Along with his family, Layton houses Bobbie, a bobcat that one morning gets out of its cage and wanders over to the neighbors’. This causes Layton stress, as he has to not only go fetch Bobbie from under their pool deck chair, but he also has to explain why he has a bobcat. We find out that it’s Gary’s, but Mitchell doesn’t let on to who Gary is yet, or why Layton has his bobcat. That’s a good move, as that rate of reveal kept me into the story, kept me wondering (of course, if I’d read the stories in order, I’d know; still, the story should stand alone and has, as it was published in storySouth a while back). Layton eases Bobbie back into the bobcat cage inside the house—no small task, Layton covered in scratches and piss—but has to deal with the aftereffects. The neighbors call Animal Control, leading to threats of the animal’s removal and destruction. Sheila does not let up on Layton over the next few weeks, urging him to take care of the Bobbie situation, and it’s enough to drive Layton askew.

Dealing with Bobbie is the main plot of “Unnatural Habitats,” but since it’s a long story, there’s a lot of good character development along the way. Elijah seems like a typical troubled teen, sneaking out at night, making a mess, sneaking girls in, that sort of thing, and Layton realizes his relationship with his oldest is nil. He and Sheila bicker a lot, but it seems like that’s just what they do, so there’s never really a threat of divorce, just a steady dose of tension. Various kids pop up and Mitchell never names them—on purpose, for sure—and one could wager Layton might fail a quiz if it asked him to list their full names and birth dates.

Mitchell also weaves in a lot of Layton’s backstory, what she wrote out in previous stories. We slowly find out who Gary is: Layton’s former insurance company partner. We find out from where Layton got Bobbie: From Gary, who collected exotic pets. We’re told how Layton got rich: He sells cocaine, using the insurance business as a cover and laundry service. Finally, we find out what happened to Gary and why Layton has Bobbie: A while ago, Layton was sleeping with another man’s wife and the other man beat him nearly to death; it may have also been a drug deal gone bad—Layton has a lot of theories and a lot of enemies. Eventually, Layton came to suspect Gary and hires a new insurance partner to help him “fire” Gary, in other words, go to Gary’s and beat him nearly to death. Later on, to add insult to injury, Layton steals Bobbie, claiming the cat as a sort of trophy.

This is all that really ties Layton to Bobbie, but eventually, Sheila’s nagging and continued threats from Animal Control give a distaste for Bobbie in Layton’s mouth. He decides the best place to put Bobbie is back in Gary’s house, despite the fact Gary has long since disappeared and his house has been abandoned for several years. Layton drafts Elijah for the task and the two cajole Bobbie into the travel cage and head out across Arkansas. This gives the two, and Mitchell, time to deal with the father-son issues; we also find out that Layton has similar issues with his dad, from whom he’s been estranged for a while. I won’t go into what happens from here, though, when the pair get’s to Gary’s, as that would be revealing too much. I’ll note that it’s a surprising, satisfying ending to this long tale—Layton’s chance at stardom—and I feel as if the story of Layton has been told and told well.

Overall, I liked everything I read in Unnatural Habitats, following these kind-of-kooky characters as they make their way through their lives, facing hurdles, obstacles often caused by their own faulty decision making. That type of complexity of character always makes for a good read. As stated earlier, I also enjoyed the Ozarks setting and local references, making me think how Gary and Layton and the rest of these assorted characters help define the Ozarks and its literature. I tried to remember that Mitchell is writing fiction, that her depictions happen in the Ozarks, how people like Gary and Layton are around, but aren’t the norm, just like most people aren’t the meth-cooking, squirrel-hunting tragedies they seem to be in Winter’s Bone. I like how the theme of the title is played out, too, characters often finding themselves in a place they don’t recognize, a place they don’t belong. I enjoyed the time I spent with Unnatural Habitats today, am glad to see Angela Mitchell and her stories emerge.

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“Kattekoppen” by Will Mackin

Happy Veteran’s Day (observed), Story366! I’d been planning to do a post for about a week now, letting last week slip away. Since I don’t really post on weekends anymore—slow traffic—I put time aside this morning to get one in. It’s serendipity, 100 percent, that it happened to be Veteran’s Day and I happened to grab Will Mackin‘s book—Will Mackin’s a veteran who writes about his experiences in Afghanistan. Sometimes things just work out.

Before I get into the book, I thought I’d relay some of my own veteran experiences, which, really, aren’t my experiences. My father’s story, as best as I can relay it: In 1950, freshly graduated from high school, Dad got into several arguments with the family who adopted him when he was 12, a family who owned a bakery and expected my father to pretty much work there full time, for the rest of his life, since he was done with school.  Dad instead signed up for the Army, right in the midst of the Korean Conflict, and as he told it, was on a ship heading to Asia when he got a staph infection in his foot. He was then sent to an Army hospital, and after that, instead of going to Korea, spent his deployment in West Berlin, pre-Wall. He came home when his two years were up, made peace with his adopted family, and went to work in a Northwest Indiana steel mill for the next thirty-four years.

My oldest brother, 17 when I was born in 1973, just missed the Vietnam-era draft, and he and the middle two boys in the family went to high school in the seventies when the country wasn’t drafting and wasn’t heavily recruiting. By the time I reached high school in the late eighties, military service was advertised as a great way to pay for college and see the world, the commercials on TV displaying groups of soldiers laughing and frolicking in exotic ports. It was never, ever an option for me to join, for a few reasons. First, everyone in my family, everyone I knew, dissuaded me from doing so, the basic, “What? You want to get killed or something?” reasoning. I was a straight-A student in grade school and an honors student in high school, and for the most part, the military was painted to me as an option for people without options: Kids who weren’t going to college and couldn’t hold down real jobs chose the military, just to ensure a place to live and three squares a day. This is a shameful depiction, I’ve come to realize in the last twenty years, but overall, anyone who talked to me when I was young would have shot the idea down with something to the tune of, “You’re smart. Why would you want to throw away your life?”

On top of that, I was not a well kid. I grew up with horrible allergies, a touch of asthma, a general susceptibility to illness, and an overprotective, semi-hypochondriac mom, the kind who kept me out of school for two days for as much as a sniffle—I missed thirty or more days of school every year from kindergarten through fifth, when I started liking being at school with my friends more than staying at home and sleeping all day, Chicken and Stars poured down my throat from morning to night. In eighth grade, I fell hard on my coccyx in gym class, which cracked apart the bottom two segments of my spinal column, putting me in a back brace for the next few years. I also had been diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease in my knees, which didn’t bother me too much, unless my knees touched something—Johnny Bench I would not be.

Most of all, I just wasn’t that type of kid. Because I played sports in my yard and on teams since I was little, I was pretty skilled in the skill areas: I could hit, throw, catch, and shoot all manners of balls, and was, when I was a kid, kind of good at sports. However, I was also what anyone would dub “the fat kid” on the team (or one of them—this was Chicago, remember), and by the time I got to high school, it caught up to me. Sure, I made the baseball team, but the guy who played first base while I rode the bench was a massive dude, six-four, thickly muscled, also the quarterback of the football team and the center on the basketball team—he got drafted by the Astros right after our senior year. When those Marine guys came to school to administer hose Vice President tests, I was super-exposed, unable to mount much of anything in the way of situps or pushups, and to this day, I’ve never done more than one pullup, just that one you do because you jump up and grab the bar and your momentum carries you over the first time. The Marines were not asking to talk to me after gym. I was headed to college and everyone was okay with that.

For years, I never thought anything of this. There were people who were meant to serve and I just wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until 9-11, when people really started joining the military at long unforeseen rates, that I started thinking. I was 28 at the time and really in no better shape, but people I knew from the community started to sign up. High school kids—not just the ones my family members had described—were signing up, and not simply to receive free college or one day be stationed in Hawaii. People were patriotic. People wanted to defend our country. Some wanted revenge, sure, wanted to go and shoot whoever blew up our buildings. They wanted to make sure nobody did that again. It got me thinking about service, how I probably would have been rejected, anyway, but that I shouldn’t have discarded the notion so easily. If I had been patriotic enough, had believed in doing my part as my father had and these post 9-11 kids were doing, I could have made it happen. My back was healed, my mom wasn’t holding me out of school, and if I wanted it bad enough, I could have gotten in shape. For the first time, I felt a little guilty, that I wasn’t contributing. More so, I wasn’t risking anything like these people had and were and still do. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a coward, but I would never be mistaken for a hero, either.

In Missouri, military service is much more prevalent than in the Chicago suburbs or in Ohio, where I lived during 9-11. Fort Leonard Wood, where my father did his basic, is just up the road, and a lot of military families settle around Springfield when their time is done. The culture around guns and the outdoors is different here, too, boys growing up more like the guys in The Deer Hunter than the kids rich kids in John Hughes movies that more closely resembled my upbringing (note how Chet from Weird Science, who chose a life of military service, was pegged as a dumbass, a violence-hungry asshole, the exact kind of guy my relatives said the military was for back then). Kids in Missouri grow up out in the woods. They own guns. They’re in Boy Scouts. Military veterans are their teachers, their bosses, and their parents. My classes are littered with veterans and Guard members. Parents from my kids’ schools, people I know and interact with, served. It’s a culture where military service is deemed honorable and respectable, much different from my experience as a kid. Much better.

So, yesterday was Veteran’s Day and today I’m thinking about all this again. I’m considering the people who did something I couldn’t do, wouldn’t do, and didn’t do, for whatever reason, and note how they deserve my respect. I think about how the worst/hardest/shittiest day of my life is a good day for a lot of these people, that they often experience the worst day of their life, then maybe have to top it the next day. Or not make it through. I feel embarrassed, not because I didn’t serve, but because of what I thought about the people who did, what I was taught, what I chose to believe because it gave me an escape clause. So, happy Veteran’s Day to you vets. Thanks for doing what you do, for what you sacrificed, what you still live with.

Wow, this is undoubtedly a Story366 record for longest lead-in to the actual story and book, Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, out earlier this year from Penguin Random House. Like I said in my opening paragraph, it’s complete serendipity that I picked up this book and today happened to be today, so maybe it’s fate. In any case, Mackin is a veteran of the United States Navy, with several deployments into combat zones, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. From what I’ve read of his bio and in interviews, Mackin was a SEAL, serving with SEAL Team Six, the Navy unit most famous for the killing of Osama bin-Laden (though I can’t find if Mackin was in on that operation—probably not a coincidence). He is a true American hero, and on top of that, a gifted story writer.

Not every story in Bring Out the Dog is set in a combat zone, but seven of the eleven are, and so far, I’ve read three of those, “The Lost Troop,” “Crossing the River No Name,” and today’s selection, “Kattekoppen,” all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. The stories all follow the SEAL team through their various deployments in Afghanistan, covering several missions. Like in O’Brien’s The Things They Carry, we get to know the soldiers as we follow them through the book, the same soldiers, the same narrator (Mackin himself? A for-fiction’s-sake proxy?), making at least parts of the collection a novel-in-stories. I remember writing on Phil Klay’s Redeployment back in the everyday 2016, how Klay wrote about different characters in each of his stories. For each one, he chose a character with a different job, trying to cover all the aspects of the war, what people did, from the frontline fighters right on down the line. Mackin’s approach means I could more easily write about any story, a lot of it feeling like a novel-in-stories, but I chose “Kattekoppen,” so here we go.

Kattekoppen, we find out, are these little pieces of brown licorice that a munitions guy named Levi has sent to him from his mother in the Netherlands, part of regular care packages. These:

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As a kid, Levi loved them, but now he hates them, so he gives them to anyone who wants them. Everyone in the story—all the characters we’ve come to know so far in the book—give them a try, and in every case, they spit the Kattekoppen out in disgust. The narrator/protagonist goes for far as to eat snow and chew on pine needles to exorcise the taste from his mouth; it doesn’t work. On top of that, the little cat heads are likened to the faces of dead Taliban soldiers the team has blown up, their empty eyes. So, in short, Kattekoppen is bad.

The story’s not really about the candy, though. It’s about Levi, the team’s howitzer liaison. This guy’s job is to pinpoint artillery, which “softens up” a zone where soldiers are about to enter, taking out as many of the enemy as it can, making the zone more approachable. I.e, fewer American casualties. The team has to trust in their howitzer liaison, as often, a small miscalculation means the good guys get blown up instead of the bad guys. They trust Levi, which is key, and a problem when Levi wants to take a short leave to see his son born in Texas. This means they need to find another howitzer liaison, one they can trust, so nobody dies while Levi is gone. To note, everyone wants Levi to have this chance, so much so they get him on transport stateside even though he doesn’t have permission to leave. No hard feelings toward Levi, but it still means they have to find someone else to do his job while he’s gone. They find this someone in M.J., aka the Mah-Jongg Kid, a name that’s not explained (in this story, anyway).

While Levi’s absent, the team finds out about two missing GIs, guys who took a wrong turn in the wrong place and ended up captured. The rule is still No Man Left Behind, so the team sets out to find the pair, no matter where they have to go, no matter how long it takes, because that’s what they do. In an interview I read with Mackin, it’s noted that SEAL Team Six was the ultimate unit in Afghanistan, meaning everything that went down in Afghanistan surrounded them: If they had a mission, it took priority, and they could recruit whatever people and equipment they needed to get the job done. The search for the two captured soldiers—dubbed Chin and No Chin from the picture the team has of the duo—commences, and is harder and more involved than anyone had hoped.

I don’t want to go too much further into the plot, as it would spoil its modestly surprising outcome. I will say that Mackin nicely comes back around to Kattekoppen, as the team encounters a corpse that whose stench makes them all gag, leaving a terrible taste in their mouth—what’s powerful and pungent enough to erase this smell? Kattekoppen! Levi eventually returns to the unit, his son born (and, in the funniest bit I’ve read in the book, somehow with a thicker Dutch accent, despite being in Texas), but has to earn the trust of the team again. This ties into the story’s resolution, how this mission, the story of this gross Dutch cat-shaped candy and Levi’s furlough to the States, comes to an end.

This is how the stories I’ve read in Bring Out the Dog go, compartmentalized missions that involve this SEAL team, which happen to be the most important and dangerous missions of the entire conflict. Sometimes that means the stories don’t exactly follow the Freitag arc, as the missions don’t wrap up that neatly, aren’t structured like that. That’s the nature of what these characters do, how there isn’t one climax that defines the story, or the collection, because there’s a string of climaxes, often without any corresponding resolutions—there might be lulls, as they’re not shot at or shooting someone every day. But it’s close. Mackin seems to take that into account when crafting, that he can never depict anything as finished, even when a mission is complete—the highs never reach too high and the lows never dip too low. Even when a member of the team dies—soon, there’s going to be another mission, and maybe it’ll come off as planned. Or maybe two guys will die. Or maybe everyone will. It’s an interesting mindset for a first-person narrator, one that only really applies to war stories. Mackin’s skilled at it; it makes his collection unique, different from other war books I’ve read by O’Brien and Klay and James Jones and Robert Olen Butler and Jusef Komunyakaa. I enjoyed Mackin’s take. I enjoyed his writing.

There’s a general, unwritten rule in fiction writing, and that’s not to write military stories unless you’ve been in the military. Above all other occupations and identities, it’s the one that has no chance of coming off as authentic if you’ve not experienced your subject matter firsthand. I’ve heard veteran writers say it, I’ve heard my veteran students say it, so I’ve more or less avoided the subject completely. It’s sound advice. I hope in writing about military service and veterans, on this Veteran’s Day, that I’ve been respectful. Veterans deserve that from me, at the very least. As does Will Mackin, whose debut collection, Bring Out the Dog, marks a fine addition to the canon of American war literature, a good book in any category.

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