Bring Out the Dog
Different wars generate different types of literature. This seems obvious, but it’s interesting to note the differences between wars that are happening simultaneously, and even involve some of the same countries, but nonetheless produce stories of different flavors.
Case in point: Western literature on the recent war in Iraq seems to be alternately gritty (“The Sandbox“) and ra-ra (“American Sniper“). Meanwhile, Afghanistan tends to produce stories that are a lot more…dreamlike, as if the authors, be they British, American, or Soviet, have imbibed in the poppies for which the region is famous. This can be seen in Oleg Yermakov’s “Afghan Tales,” about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with its hallucinatory intercutting between war and civilian life, and its turtles that turn into tanks, and tanks that turn into turtles. It can be seen in British author Harry Parker’s “Anatomy of a Soldier,” which tracks a British soldier’s wounding and recovery in a frequently non-chronological manner from the point of view of the objects the protagonist comes into contact with. And now American Navy veteran and author Will Mackin has produced a collection of short stories, largely but not entirely set in Afghanistan, that alternate between realist portrayals of the activities of a group of Navy SEALs, and the hallucinations/visions/premonitions of the unnamed narrator.
In many ways “Bring Out the Dog” is clearly Post-9/11 American Military Writing, Subtype B: Literary. Paragraphs tend to be short, and sentences, declarative. There’s a reasonable number of acronyms and enough bad language, frequently misogynistic, to make it clear that these are military men telling military tales. Gritty (by American standards) details such as the disposal of human feces through burning are judiciously included, but not so much that the author can be accused of writing war porn.
What sets “Bring Out the Dog” apart from its brethren is its almost magic realism feel, as its nameless narrator (or narrators?) floats in and out of dream states, witnessing how things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, or even the opposite: instead of heroic missions, the characters go on raids of empty compounds, arrest teenagers, and accidentally shoot their own. And instead of the emphasis on intense emotion that much of modern war writing has, these stories take place in a semi-trance state, with everything seeing to happen very far away, maybe in a dream, maybe in a drugged state, maybe just in a state of complete exhaustion and adrenal overload. In some ways it’s the closest American equivalent I’ve read to Russian bestseller Zakhar Prilepin‘s stories, which, in case you’re wondering, is high praise indeed. (Someday Prilepin’s “Pathologies” will be translated into English, maybe by me, and the American reading public will…run and hide, most likely. But that’s a tale for a different time).
There’s a sort of a plot connecting the stories of “Bring Out the Dog” (maybe), as they track the unnamed “I” through multiple deployments in Afghanistan and then Iraq, with interludes for training in the US, but this isn’t a “what happens next” kind of book, although the individual stories are quite gripping. Instead it’s a “what’s happening now” kind of book, as the reader is plunged into the narrator’s state of mind. Drug trips, whether of externally ingested or self-generated drugs, are harder to write than many authors think, but Macklin captures a certain out-of-it mindset with pitch-perfect precision, depicting night raids and nightmares with equal laconic realism. Readers looking for “American Sniper” like gung-ho war stories will probably be disappointed, but readers looking for something new and interesting in the world of military literary fiction should definitely check this book out.