Fat giggly Americans

An essay to accompany the thesis “Fratricide”

I am not a religious man. Many many years ago, maybe. Not any more. So I think it’s strange I started all this off with a Biblical verse. But I was struck by its appropriateness.

“Fratricide” is a story based on an actual event. The actual event ended with less blood, but just barely.

Individuals aren’t important to the army. We were all just cogs in a lumbering machine. Numbers on a report in a Pentagon desk. But I still thought that we mattered to those directly above us, the officers and NCOs of our units. Surely we were unique to them.

But that night when he finally snapped and they sent in the SWAT team—a drunken SWAT team who taunted him before shooting him—to bring him out, I knew they didn’t care. The lengths they would go to to keep the machine running horrified me. If you were broken, they wouldn’t waste time and resources trying to fix you. They would simply replace you.

I left the army about a year later. I should have left the next month, but King George II had started his Wars of Conquest and everyone in the army was told to stay put. Stop-loss. Calling it getting-fucked-in-the-ass was too obvious, I guess. That’s what we called it.

I was stop-lossed for ten months. It was supposed to be twelve. Who knows? And I fled into the night like an escaping East German—four in the morning, black out drive, paranoid that they were right behind me. I drove without stopping to Iowa City with no idea of what came next.

I had been a cop for eight years when they finally let me go. I spent my last three years at Fort Knox as a Traffic Accident Investigator. I drove around an unmarked police car writing tickets and arresting drunks. Up until “Fratricide” I wanted to be a cop. Now I wanted nothing to do with it. I felt like I knew something but had to find it out for myself.

The first semester at Kirkwood I took two classes that would lead me to the English major and on to a writing MFA program. Intro to Lit: Fiction and Composition II. In Intro to Lit I learned what a story can do. In Comp, I learned I could write.

My writing teacher recommended I read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

“Do you know Vonnegut?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “We read a story of his in my intro to fiction class. Science fiction writer, right?”

He scoffed. “Not really.”—I would learn later Vonnegut hated being called a science fiction writer because people took him less seriously—“He was a prisoner of war during WWII. He was in Dresden when the city was firebombed, and,” he trailed off, shaking his head.

“Dresden?” I asked. I never heard of Dresden. And I had lived in Germany for a year and a half. I thought Slaughterhouse-Five was some kind of slasher novel.

Slaughterhouse-Five was the first book I read as a writer. It was actually the first book I ever really read. And it blew me away. The way he wrote. He didn’t follow any of these rules I was learning. He shifted tense, point of view, time and setting at a whim. It was the only way he could tell about something as bad as Dresden must have been. And through fiction, he taught me about an event I had never heard of. He taught me what fiction is for. “The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead” (227).

I’ve read a lot of Vonnegut since. I appreciate his outlook and how he can always be funny. I also like his rule for writers: “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (A Man Without a Country 23). But this one is much better: “You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff. You’re not expecting it” (AMWAC 20). Especially in fiction—the art of lying truthfully.

I always thought this word truth was easy, its meaning clear. I am a product of American grade schools and a Catholic High School. I was in law enforcement for eight years. I didn’t see any gray. Everything was right or wrong, sober or drunk, truth or lie. Now I know there’s no such thing as Truth. None of us are objective.

After earning an AA at Kirkwood, I transferred to Iowa and studied under Peter Nazareth for a year—African Lit and Conrad. I learned even more about writing. About writing a novel on a roll of toilet paper in a cold, crowded jail cell. About being beaten and killed for writing. About how dangerous writing can be to a system. Not our system of course, we’re all fat and giggly voting for American Idol while soldiers are being torn to pieces on the other side of the world.

One day at the end of a semester, I brought in my military police badge to show him. He looked at it and laughed and told me, “It is important, that after you find out you’ve been lied to your whole life, that you don’t become one who thinks everyone is lying to you. You’ll go crazy.”

The English department is adding an undergrad writing program. I don’t think this is a good idea. What will one do with a BA in Writing? Just because people come to Iowa because of the Workshop and are then disappointed to learn they’re not in the Workshop is no reason to add a writing program. And trickery is a good lesson for any writer to learn.

T.C. Boyle, a Workshop alum, gives advise to aspiring writers: “Read, read, read, read, and then read.” And Flannery O’Connor, another Workshop alum, replied, when asked if writing programs discourage aspiring writers, “It doesn’t discourage enough of them.” I love Mary. Despite what Martin Roper may believe, writing cannot be taught. Sure, everyone can write, I’ll give him that. But that doesn’t mean everyone should write.

Here’s what I’m getting at: the English BA is more than sufficient for any aspiring writer. There are plenty of writing classes offered through the program and by covering the period and subject requirements, I was given a breadth of knowledge I didn’t even know was out there. These have been years of absorption. Of reading and learning stories. And I finally feel like I can tell my stories.

My stories are about the army. It worries me, all these flags waving and yellow ribbons stuck on cars. The army is a whole world onto itself. Other students tell me my army isn’t authentic. That a soldier just wouldn’t be drinking a beer in front of a sergeant. But it is authentic. The army, when I left, was breaking down. I want people to know soldiers are people. We have all the same dreams and hopes and faults and ugliness as anyone else. And we have to deal with the crushing bureaucracy that is the Department of the Army.

But I’m glad I joined. I wasn’t ready for college at 18 and would have only been wasting time and money. And it gave me lots of stories to tell.

I’m not going to have the gpa to graduate with honors. I’m not really worried about that. Titles are meaningless. I’ve had amazing opportunities in the English Honors Program. Small classes with top professors. And working with James McPherson is something I’ll never forget. I was writing this story. He told me what it was about. But I’m going to wrap this up. Writing about writing makes me uncomfortable. And I’m still not sure what this essay was supposed to be about. But I wrote a story. I hope you liked it.

The Reading List

Dos Passos, John. Three Soldiers. 1921. New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Dos Passos follows three American soldiers through the First World War. Dos Passos, in the stripped down language of post WWI, tells of the horror of crossing the U-Boat infested Northern Atlantic, of the monotony of cleaning a barracks day after day and the uncertainty of waiting. Three Soldiers, with its grim stories and unheroic characters, shows a different side of war. The reality of war. The war that’s never shown in the movies.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Hemingway is widely regarded as the founder of a new style and his first collection of short stories established him as the new American voice of literature. His short sentences, stripped to the bare minimum of words while retaining a world of information and description, revolutionized writing in the post-war era. Living in Paris, Hemingway writes about Nick Adams and his adventures in Michigan. “Soldier’s Home” explores shell-shock and soldiers not wanting to talk about war. A phenomenon Kurt Vonnegut later bemoans as romanticizing war.

—. A Farewell to Arms. 1929. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Hemingway’s classic novel about the First World War. Lt. Henry, an American serving in the Italian army as an ambulance driver, serves on the Italian front, is wounded, falls in love with a British nurse, sent back to the front, and witnesses the Italian retreat after the Austrian Caporetto offensive of 1917. Henry is pulled out of line to be shot for retreating. It is this novel that Hemingway writes about the meaninglessness of words like honor and valor when talking about muddy and bloody hills.

—. Green Hills of Africa. 1935. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Famous and bored, Papa heads to East Africa with his wife for a month of big game hunting. While Africans flee famine, Hemingway shoots strange animals and avoids savage lions trying to tear him apart. At night, after a few drinks, looking into the clear African sky, he offers advice and thoughts on writing and writers. “Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York. All angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle.” And, “That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely…” There are worse people to take advice from.

O’Brien, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone. 1975. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

Shifting gears to the Vietnam War, this is O’Brien’s war memoir. O’Brien was drafted into the army in 1969 and served in Vietnam for a year. His memoir is a dismal look at a broken army losing an unpopular war. O’Brien calls himself a coward for going off to war, calling it the easy thing to do. What’s harder, he observes, is standing up for what you believe in and facing the consequences.

—. The Things They Carried. 1990. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

These are O’Brien’s fictional stories about his time in Vietnam. But it’s hard to tell that. This book reads like a series of essays. The protagonist is Tim O’Brien and the book is dedicated “to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Narman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” All of these characters die in the following pages. Is this book fiction or nonfiction? Only O’Brien knows. But one thing is certain, we shouldn’t trust any war story to be telling the truth.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

O’Connor’s stories have the quality of making one feel comfortable for a moment, of thinking one knows what’s going to happen and that everything is going to be all right. But then she’ll twist everything around and a grandmother is being shot to death in some ditch all because of her cat. Her stories are compact, there’s no time wasted, and they knock the wind out of you.

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. 1928. Trans. A. W. Wheen. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1982.

Remarque’s novel about the German experience on the Western Front of WWI shows that there’s no such thing as us/them. The German boys fighting and dying in their trenches were no different from the French or British soldiers dying in theirs. This is easy to forget. And we always forget it.

Swofford, Anthony. Jarhead. New York: Scribner, 2004.

Swofford’s chilling memoir about being a Marine sniper during the first Gulf War. It’s a war book without a war as Swofford and his cohorts sit in the desert waiting for a war that’s over in a few short hours without firing a single shot. He shows how the stress of boredom mixed with the inanity of the military can break people.

Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. 1939. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Trumbo’s classic anti-war text became very popular during America’s involvement in Vietnam. Trumbo writes about an American soldier who is hit by a shell. He’s conscious, but that’s it. The soldier has lost his arms, legs, face and ears. He eventually communicates by tapping his head in Morse code. He wants the army to take him on tour. He believes he can end all war by letting everyone see what war does. The army, of course, doesn’t take him up on this.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. 1969. New York: Random House, 1999.

Vonnegut’s famous tale of kidnapping aliens, being unstuck in time, cities and civilians being destroyed. The first book I read as a writer has taught me so much and teaches me more every time I read it. Vonnegut sadly died while I was writing this thesis and is up in heaven now. So it goes.

—. A Man Without A Country. Ed. Daniel Simon. New York: Seven Stories Press,

A collection of essays written for a Chicago newspaper. Vonnegut talks about the modern age and why we’re all going to die. In this collection Vonnegut gives a writing lesson no writer should miss.

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One Response

  1. I’m not sure what ‘mail’ means? Email I assume. Strip it down, say what it is to be said in low tones, little hoopla; aahhh, semicolon. I loved college, love mfa even more.

    i read slaughterhouse five in kuta, bali. at night, after long days of surfing the local reefs. 1994. great trip. vonnegut blew me away, he said as he wrote an email to a fellow classmate. nice.

    Michael Pakes - December 4th, 2008 at 10:38 pm