Tonight’s post is going to be brief. Today I read the first three-fifths of Phil Klay’s Redeployment in more or less the same manner that I first read its literary big brother, The Things They Carried – which is to say that I read it in a few intense sittings and was completely engrossed. Klay’s debt to O’Brien is clear, both in the content of his stories and the narrative techniques he chooses – nothing wrong with paying homage to the work of an outstanding author – and in the promotional blurbs on the front cover, back cover, and first few pages of the book, where Tim O’Brien and The Things They Carried are mentioned almost a dozen times. I am enjoying Redeployment immensely, but the fact that I am forced by the folks marketing the book to think about The Things They Carried every twelve seconds is annoying – because Redeployment is not The Things They Carried.
The essence of The Things They Carried is its unrelenting questioning of narrative truth. Its title story aims for truth in the form of a catalog, listing the endless supplies – including some intangibles – carried by the members of Jimmy Cross’s platoon. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is a fairy tale – a dark one, like those by the Brothers Grimm. “The Man I Killed” is more of a montage of the possibilities that swirl around a dead Vietnamese soldier. “On the Rainy River” is a memory, except that it is a memory not only of the past but of the future. And, of course, “How to Tell a True War Story” may be the best essay ever written about the fact that emotions are under no obligation to line up with events in rational ways. If you haven’t read The Things They Carried, read it – even if you don’t like war stories. It’s so much more than just a war story.
Klay’s collection consists of twelve stories in the realist tradition. Klay writes more in the tradition of Alice Munro than of Tim O’Brien – and there is nothing in the world wrong with this. Klay’s stories assault the reader with a barrage of military acronyms, capture the disorientation of returning home after a deployment in Iraq, and question the morality of warfare from every possible direction. I can’t remember a time when I was so impressed by a debut collection of short stories. But every time I put the book down for a minute (and I didn’t put it down often), I was reminded yet again that Redeployment is supposed to be the 21st-century equivalent of The Things They Carried.
This book is really good. My favorite stories so far are the title story plus “Bodies” – about a Marine home after a deployment after service in Iraq as a mortuary officer – and “After Action Report” – about a Marine who agrees to take the credit for killing an Iraqi teenager during a firefight because one of his fellow Marines can’t stomach the idea of admitting that he was the one who shot the boy. The story I’m in the middle of right now is a long one called “Prayer in the Furnace,” about a Marine chaplain – and this one is really good too. Next weekend, when I’ve read the whole book and had a chance to process it a bit, I’ll write in more detail about the stories.
This book is every bit as good as the National Book Award people say it is. The Things They Carried is wonderful too, of course, but I wish the critics would back off and let Redeployment be itself.