In the title story of this collection, the protagonist confesses to having killed dogs while deployed in Iraq. By the time the story begins, he is back home in North Carolina, reconnecting with his wife and facing the reality that their own dog, Vicar, will have to be euthanized. This is a classic example of the sort of short story that has been well workshopped. It tells two stories: a “war” story set in Iraq and a “reunion” story set back at home – The Iliad and The Odyssey all in sixteen pages – and the two stories are unified by a common image: a man shooting a dog with a gun.
Like all of the stories in this excellent collection, this is a story about the aftermath of war. The protagonist, Sergeant Price, spends much of the story fixated on his experiences in Iraq. He doesn’t tell war stories the way other protagonists in this collection do – he is more interested in explaining the differences between life in Iraq and live in Wilmington, NC; for example: “So here’s an experience. Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The Marine behind him checks the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear. In a city there’s a million places they can kill you from. It freaks you out at first. But you go through like you were trained, and it works” (12).
Notice the way the verbs in this passage shift erratically between present and past. A hell of a nice touch.
“In Wilmington you don’t have a squad, don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it’s not there. You’re safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it’s not. Instead, you’re stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don’t want to open it again” (12).
“White” is a reference to the terror warnings, of course – we deal with some of these even as civilians sometimes, in that they impact restrictions on air travel and surveillance in public places. Combined with the intensity of battle, this color-coded system expands into almost a diagnostic device, indicating the level to which soldiers’ minds are scarred by combat. “Here’s what orange is,” continues Sergeant Price. “You don’t see or hear like you used to. Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block. It’s hard to even remember exactly what that felt like. I think you take in too much information to store so you just forget, free up brain space to take in everything about the next moment that might keep you alive. And then you forget that moment too, and focus on the next. And the next. And the next. For seven months” (13).
In this passage, the pronouns shift constantly between “I” and “you.” It seems as if Price can’t quite decide how much he wants to own up to. We often use “you” to mean “I and others like me, probably including you, my listener or reader, if you were in the same situation I was in,” but we also use it to deflect agency away from ourselves. The use of “you” in place of “I” can mean “we’re all in this together,” but it can also mean “don’t blame me – I was just doing what I had to do to survive. You would have done the same, right?”
The story ends, of course, with Price shooting his dog – not out of skittishness and aggression, as he and his fellow Marines did while on patrol in Iraq, and not by accident either. He shoots his dog because he knows Vicar is elderly and sick, and Price can’t stand the idea of Vicar being killed impersonally in a sterile white room at a veterinary clinic. As he prepares to shoot Vicar with his AR-15 rifle, Price’s pronouns become even more jumbled. “If I were to shoot you on either side of your heart, one shot… and then another” – note all the possibilities inherent in “you” here: the reader, Vicar, Price himself, all of humanity – “you’d have two punctured lungs, two sucking chest wounds. Now you’re good and fucked. But you’ll still be alive long enough to feel your lungs fill up with blood” (16).
In my last post on this collection, I expressed frustration with critics who equate Redeployment with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, not because I don’t think Redeployment is good (The Things They Carried is a favorite of mine) but because I think that in most cases Klay writes more in the tradition of Alice Munro than of Tim O’Brien. I mean this as high praise – any author would do well to be compared to either Munro or O’Brien. However, as I reviewed this story, the first in the collection, I thought of the baby water buffalo the soldiers kill in The Things They Carried. I also thought of the title story of O’Brien’s collection, which also uses the monologue device in place of traditional storytelling.
If all of Klay’s collection adhered this closely to the structure and narrative devices of The Things They Carried, I would have grown tired of it quickly. The Things They Carried is inimitable; not even Tim O’Brien could reproduce it. The only way another collection could equal O’Brien’s is by doing something entirely different. Klay is not doing something entirely different – he is using the short story form as he inherited it, and using it extremely well. As a result, we can take Klay’s stories on their own terms – and on their own terms is the only way to evaluate them fairly.
All week long I’ve been intimidated at the thought of writing this review. I wanted to give Klay’s book the praise it deserves, and I also wanted to do each individual story justice. I feel this way about story collections in general – they’re hard to review as a whole, and if I sit down and try to analyze each individual story, I may never reach the end of the review. So I’ll make a few general statements here: the first story, “Redeployment,” is very good, and it sets the stage for the rest of the book by establishing the idea that even a return home is a form of deployment, with a stated mission, a clear objective, and any number of hidden hazards. Other stories that are equally good – and in some cases better – are “After Action Report,” in which a Marine allows another Marine to give him credit for a “kill” for which the first Marine doesn’t want to take credit (or blame, depending on your perspective); “Bodies,” about a Marine home on leave after serving in Mortuary Services in Iraq; “Prayer in the Furnace,” about a Marine chaplain considering how best to handle a commander who callously and deliberately puts his men in harm’s way; and “Psychological Operations,” in which a veteran of the Iraq war enrolls at Amherst College and finds himself trying to justify the war to a privileged young American woman who has just converted to Islam. “Psychological Operations” has a lot in common on a thematic level with “How to Tell a True War Story” in The Things They Carried. My least favorite story in the collection is “Ten Kliks South.” In general, Klay’s best stories are his long ones.
I recommend this collection wholeheartedly to any reader who enjoys realistic fiction, military fiction, or a literary perspective on recent U.S. history. And, while I don’t think this novel is best described as The Things They Carried for the Iraq War generation, I do think these two collections would be paired well together and would make a fantastic unit in a course on the short story – with a little Alice Munro mixed in as well, of course, to showcase other influences on Klay besides O’Brien.