East of Coker
In “East of Coker,” the lives of two different generations intertwine: Arthur, a veteran of WWII, befriends a soldier returned from Iraq who is at the same rehab center. Both men are separated from the women they love, and alienated from society around them, Arthur by his age and the unnamed veteran of Iraq because of the rage he felt at those who were not properly appreciative of the sacrifices he and his friends had made, a rage that “slowly turned inwards and mutated into a self-hatred of the pathetic creature I had become,” as he succumbs to morphine addiction and alcoholism.
This summary of the plot makes “East of Coker” sound very downbeat, and indeed it’s a serious treatment of a serious subject. This is not an uplifting heroic narrative, but rather a dense yet compact work, featuring multiple narrators and brimming over with quotations and allusions to sources as disparate as Shakespeare and Scheherazade. It’s a “disillusioned vet” story, yes, but one that places the experiences of these alienated and embittered men in a larger context, one that suggests that what they are going through is nothing new.
The connections forged between people and generations are only somewhat comforting, however, as the similarities between seemingly different people also mean that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Both Arthur and his younger comrade realize separately that humanity has a terrible tendency to do harm while intending to do good; both the British veteran and the Iraqi woman whose actions led to his injuries are driven by a similar sense of rage. Late in the story, Arthur and his new friend are sitting on a bench at the rehab center that has a plaque dedicated “To the memory and honour of the veterans of yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Both men fought in wars that were supposed to end the need for more war, only to end up limping over to a bench dedicated to tomorrow’s veterans.
Despite the suffering that it chronicles, the story ends on a note of hope, one that does and does not resolve the plot, and, while not redeeming what the characters have been through, hints at the chance that perhaps things can get better, or maybe that just there can be good things as well as bad, that while the characters’ rage and despair is justified, so is their belief in the possibility of something better.
“East of Coker” is a short book, but it packs a large amount into a few pages. The style is for the most part lyrical yet demanding: this is a work that requires the reader’s attention, in order to follow the intercutting narratives and the unfolding story of tragedy, hope, and last chances. Readers who enjoyed, say, the “American Sniper” take on the war in Iraq are unlikely to enjoy it, but those who are looking for a story that is about storytelling, and aren’t afraid to plunge into something intense and intensely literary, will be rewarded.