Phil Klay understands that when you are a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, and you write fiction about war, some readers will assume every story is your own.
This, he wants you to know, is not the case.
“I don’t think you can read the whole book and think it’s autobiographical,” says the author of Redeployment (Penguin, $16 in paper). He appears Thursday at Books & Books in the Gables. “There are some things in the book that are related to things that happened to me. There are things related to other soldiers or Marines — and I did a lot of research.”
In its 12 unforgettable stories, Redeployment offers a wide-angle and yet deeply personal examination of the Iraq War. Winner of the 2014 National Book Award for fiction, the book is the spiritual heir of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War masterpiece The Things They Carried. But instead of mimicking O’Brien’s metafictional stories based on his own experiences about the men in a single platoon, Klay — who accepted his commission in the Marines in 2005 after graduating from Dartmouth and served in the Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 — expands his stories to include a wide variety of experience. His position as a public affairs officer put him in a unique position to meet and work with different types of Marines and soldiers.
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“I was interested in the stories people haven’t encountered as much,” he says now. “It allowed me to approach similar themes from very different angles and look at them in a new light.”
Among his characters are the focused Marines in Frago, clearing a house with slick efficiency (“Back door leads to the kitchen. Right, clear. Left, clear. Overhead, clear. Rear, clear. Kitchen, clear. We roll through, don’t stack, just roll.”). A chaplain’s faith is tested in Prayer in the Furnace. The artilleryman in Ten Kliks South completes a mission — “We took out a group of insurgents and then we went to the Fallujah chow hall for lunch. I got fish and lima beans. I try to eat healthy” — but can’t stop wondering what carnage he caused at the faraway target.
The difficulty for veterans returning home after time in a combat zone is a recurring theme. In Psychological Operations, a propaganda specialist — a job we rarely associate with modern warfare — confides in a fellow college student, a Muslim convert, who has complained he insulted her. In War Stories, two veterans, one disfigured by an IED, talk uncomfortably with a would-be documentary filmmaker ( “No, I’m fine,” says the injured vet sharply when asked about PTSD. “Who wouldn’t have a few weird reactions?”).
The devastating title story, in which a veteran tries to ease back into life with his wife, opens with the savage lines, “We shot dogs. Not by accident.” But Klay also displays a grim sense of humor in Money as a Weapons System, in which a foreign service officer learns to negotiate the Catch-22-esque bureaucracy in order to accomplish something positive. “Success was a matter of perspective,” he says. “In Iraq it had to be. There was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat.”
The character “is dealing with the aftermath of a lot of policies from the early days of the Iraq War,” Klay explains. “I wanted that story to break into a broader look at war and to have that kind of absurdity and humor which is part of war. War is not a bunch of people standing around going, ‘War is hell.’ It’s people cracking jokes, too.”
This multifaceted structure earned Redeployment rave reviews, as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book in any genre.
“It’s a fine book,” says Ben Fountain, author of the biting Iraq War satire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. “He lays out the human experience of the war in all its complexity and ambiguity. There’s no neat closure in those stories.” (For his part, Klay calls Billy Lynn a “fantastic” book.)
There’s a long-standing literary tradition of soldiers and veterans writing about their experiences: Poets like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves wrote about the horrors of World War I. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead used his experience in the Philippines during World War II. Fountain did not serve in the military and says he questioned whether he had the right to write about the subject.
“It’s not something I took lightly, not a casual decision,” he says. “Anytime you’re getting into subject matter that deals with blood and life and death, you have a responsibility and obligation to get it as right as you can. I did a tremendous amount of research, and I felt I had to earn the right to write that book. I’ve taken a certain amount of flak for not having served, and I’m pretty sympathetic to that point of view. But there was a powerful urge in me to write this story. ... Ultimately writers have to be free to write about what’s important to them.”
Klay agrees, saying experience offers advantages and disadvantages.
“It doesn’t make a difference in terms of writing. A great writer is a great writer. ... Tolstoy was not a woman, but Anna Karenina is still a pretty good book,” he says. “The experience gives you an advantage because you know a little bit about the world you want to write about. It’s easier to get people to talk to you if you’re a vet and you want to interview a vet about war. Sometimes they open up a little bit easier. But I think every story is difficult in its own way. Every story you’re writing throws up different challenges, whether your challenge is spending a lot of time in a dark place or whether it’s technical, like, ‘How do I structure this?’”
Even now, people still ask Klay, who earned an MFA from Hunter College upon his return from Iraq, why he joined the service. It’s a natural question, he says, because of all that has happened in the past decade. He grew up in a family that emphasized public service, with a father who served in the Peace Corps and a mother who was the daughter of a career diplomat. Two of his brothers also joined the military.
“One of the things that’s difficult for people to understand is when you join the military, you don’t sign up as an endorsement of any particular policy of the moment,” he says. “You don’t choose where you get sent. ... You don’t join up to serve George W. Bush or Barack Obama. You join up to serve your country.
“People have a very political way of looking at war, and that’s understandable. The political discussions are interesting and worth having. But this is not a policy book. What I was interested in was the decisions service members make in the moment. You go overseas, and you have this job. Your choice is not, ‘Do I go back in time and not invade Iraq in 2003?’ You make your choices, you see the consequences, and you live with them.”
Meet the author
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: www.booksandbooks.com or 305-442-4408