13 September 2019

Book Review: 'Still Come Home: A Novel'

Fiction Book Review: "Still Come Home" by Katey Schultz

Katey Schultz is an educator and author based in North Carolina. In 2013, Schultz delivered "Flashes of War," an award-winning collection of 31 short stories, generated around U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each story is each told from the perspective of a single character, and many resolved in only two or three pages. Writing in the mode of "flash-fiction" forces an author to pare down one's prose, but also to infuse meaning and metaphor to optimize each word.

As a writer, Schultz is a master of one of the principles of war: "economy of force."

In a new, 260-page novel, "Still Come Home," Schultz deploys her Spartan words to deliver what others have not: She distills the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan to a relatable scale, articulating through her characters the questions that can be asked about war, and duty, and family. In doing so, she illuminates the complex emotional calculations of regular people caught up in war, be they "friend," "enemy," or seemingly indifferent. Her work serves the highest calling in a heartless world: to create opportunities for empathy, and for reflection.

The action of "Still Come Home" takes place over three days, in a handful of settings near Tarin Kot, a real place in Southern Afghanistan's Uruzgan Province, as woven together through the voices and threads of three main characters.

(More geography: The novel settles into spaces between a semi-fictional Forward Operating Base ("FOB") Copperhead, and the fictional town of Imar, pop. 300. Potentially noteworthy to the readers of the Red Bull Rising blog, the base is likely modeled after FOB Davis (aka FOB Ripley). FOB Davis was a coalition installation originally established in 2004 with help from the Iowa National Guard's Task Force 168.)

There is Nathan Miller, a former farm-boy valedictorian who joined the active-duty Army right out of Indiana high school. Now a member of the North Carolina National Guard, Afghanistan is his fourth deployment. Miller is soon to return stateside to his semi-estranged wife, with whom he has one child and has lost another. There is the teenaged and possibly infertile Pashtun woman Aaseya, who seeks to establish the stability and legitimacy she enjoyed before her family was killed in an explosion. She suspects the assassination took place after the family had been wrongly reported to the Taliban as U.S. collaborators. And there is her brick-maker husband Rahim, 37, her late father's cousin, who is a victim of the institutional sexual abuse of male children known as bacha bazi.

Based on such relations, readers might incorrectly anticipate melodrama or comic-book soap opera. While engines of hope and shame drive much of the plot, however, the narrative never feels one- or two-dimensional. Complexity happens. Objectives change. Characters move out smartly, based on their intelligence. Most importantly, in all of this, the author treats her Afghan characters with care and content equal to their American counterparts.

War is hell, after all. On everybody. Especially family. And everyone's got family.

In a typical selection, Schultz describes a three-vehicle convoy's arrival in Imar with semi-automatic rhythm:
The convoy nears the main part of the village. A vendor selling kebabs works frantically to hold his makeshift cart intact as the Spartans vibrate past. Miller can see actual residences now—mud-cooked family homes, the occasional two-story dwelling. Coils of smoke lift from several courtyards. Some homes have no windows or openings at all, just a hand-built wall surrounding each compound of small, interconnected dwellings. Others have cut tiny spaces to welcome the light and air, faded red or yellow curtains flapping thinly in the breeze. Three little girls hurry from a hiding spot behind an outbuilding. The oldest shuffles the other two away from the convoy and looks over her shoulder at the men, moving with the practiced hustle of war. Even here, at the far reaches of nowhere, they seem suspicious.
Schultz has just as carefully curated the time of her story, as much as she has chosen the place. The year is just before the "Afghan Surge" of 2010-2011; just before Humvees are banned from deploying outside the wire; and just after a controversial new set of Rules of Engagement ("R.O.E.") has been issued to coalition troops by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

In the posh think-tank phrasing of the day, the counter-insurgency tactics were intended to "win hearts and minds" by exercising restraint in the application of violence. Nobody wants to kill civilians, of course, but many rank-and-file soldiers chaffed at the ROE, feeling as if they'd been told not to defend themselves.

As both metaphor and at a meta-level, this mix of time and place is an ideal observation point from which to consider American involvement in Afghanistan. At no other time did the country's declaring victory and coming home seem more likely than 2010. (At risk of self-promotion, this trailer video for "Reporting for Duty" captures something of the hopeful "clear, hold, build" spirit of the time.) Through her storytelling, what Schultz exposes is not necessarily that these "strategies" (tactics and techniques, really) were wrong, but that we were asking the wrong questions.

War is hell, after all. And hell is a koan.

Schultz writes: "Miller calls to mind the [ROE] directive, its ominous sentiment: The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us, but we can defeat ourselves. Like grabbing fistfuls of sand—that's what this war is. Like trying to hold onto the impossible."

Later, as Miller is about to move out with his men, he inventories his squad emotionally, noting each soldier's customized need for redemption. "And with that, the war is theirs. They will fight it for these reasons. Not for freedom. Not for politics. Not for God or country or trucking companies. But for the individual things. The needles of hurt across a spectrum of life."

Against this, the troops collectively face, an unseen, random, and constant threat. "They all know the risks," Schultz writes. "No front lines in this war. Enemies, ambushes, and IEDs popping up willy-nilly, a stomach-churning child’s game of anticipation. It could be now. Or now. Now."

This game of roulette is what we have asked of our soldiers, our fellow citizens. For 18 years and counting.

At readings and other events, and on her website, Schultz tells audiences that "Flashes of War" stemmed from the urge to understand, as a citizen and educator and artist, what her country was doing in her name. Somehow without ever traveling downrange herself, her stories include sounds and smells and slang that consistently ring true. In "Still Come Home," Schultz's prose is similarly well-researched, and carefully targeted. Through her fiction, Schultz has not only successfully captured the cultural landscape of Afghanistan in 2009, but the on-going equation of American involvement in Afghanistan. And she's packaged it in an easily accessible form, without judgment.

Not, however, without hope.

In present-tense, Schultz artfully but explicitly traces each main character's shifting wants and needs. Grabbing at their own fistfuls of sand, Miller, Aaseya, and Rahim continually triangulate their respective decisions with their individual desires for safety, security, and family. Miller, for example, volunteered to deploy without first soliciting his wife's opinion. She assumes he wants to play soldier again. In reality, he hopes to make up for past mistakes—some of which have occurred on the battlefield, and some that have happened back home. At one point, as Schultz succinctly states: "This tour is Miller’s final chance to find his cool again, forget he ever drafted a suicide note, and land softly back home, back into marriage, composed and capable as ever."

The obvious question would seem to be, can he still come back home?

The essential question is, can we?