I received this book for free from LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.These Heroic, Happy Dead by Luke Mogelson
Published by Crown/Archetype on April 26th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Short Stories (single author), War & Military
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Buy on Amazon
A short book of ten post-9/11 short stories, each of which is an empathetic portrait of a complex, flawed individual. Luke Mogelson writes from experience. He served as a medic in the 69th Infantry, New York Army National Guard from 2007 to 2010 and then spent the next three years living in Afghanistan as a journalist. He tells each character’s story journalistically, with no judgment. The stories come from a range of experiences: combat soldiers at home and abroad, an Afghan-American interpreter, a medic in the New York National Guard, a private contractor, a foreign correspondent, and family members of veterans. Six of the four stories are set in the USA, after deployments. The stories serve as a counterpoint to the romanticization of war and as a reality check about the lives of many soldiers after the fanfare of returning home.
…why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like loons to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead…
— e.e. cummings, “next to of course god america i”
Many of the stories are loosely threaded together, sharing common characters. Each story stands on its own, but it is a richer work if you can catch the links. We are left with an ominous open-ending in A Beautiful Country, but there is a quick update on Healy’s fate in Total Solar. Ben McPherson and Lee Boyle from To the Lake both get a little bit of a back story in Kids and New Guidance, respectively. A soldier briefly mentioned in New Guidance as a man who joined the army for dental work reappears as the main character in Human Cry. I read one story every day or two over a couple weeks, but to catch all the connections I would recommend reading it in one or two sittings. I missed at least one character update when I did not catch that the fate of Jim (the father) from Sea Bass is mentioned in Peacetime. The book is 192 pages so a quick read is definitely doable. (ALSO: There is a mosque incident mentioned in both To the Lake and The Port is Near, but I couldn’t see any clues that it was McPherson in both stories or remember a story that referenced this incident. It may be just a coincidence, but let me know if you know the connection!)
The source of my naked-in-a-dream embarrassment was never the nakedness. It was the fact that I alone had managed to get myself into such a situation, while everyone else on the submarine or whatever had managed to avoid it. What did it say about me, the sort of person I was? (Total Solar)
My favorite story was Kids. The stories of an Afghan boy bringing undetonated explosives to the base for unknown, possibly friendly, reasons and a soldier having trouble fitting into the unit intersect in a dramatic way. Mogelson really made me care for the characters through their interactions. The featured characters grappled with trying to find answers when there aren’t any and trying to make sense of senseless things. I also enjoyed:
• Total Solar – A journalist is apathetically interviewing a subject, when he suddenly gets caught up in the hazy fog of war.
• Sea Bass – An 11-year-old boy and his veteran father trying to relate to each other during summer visitation.
• Visitors – A mother visiting her son at the prison he was sentenced to after committing a violent crime shortly after returning home from combat duty.
(As the lieutenant is telling a depressed soldier the more “comforting” version of events) Just as I’d told Feldman one story, another was telling itself. I mean the story in which the kid was exactly who we’d wanted him to be; the story in which he helped us…This story was as plausible as mine, mine as plausible as this one, and who could say how many other variations there might be, or which of them, precisely, Feldman was contemplating then.
It didn’t matter. He had the rest of his shitty life to attend to all of them. The rest of his shitty life: and still he’d get no closer to knowing. (Kids, the whole passage is my favorite in the book, but it is a little too long to reproduce here)
This book is more accessible than Redeployment, because I did not need to keep referring to a glossary of acronyms to read it! I did have difficulty maintaining interest in some of the stories because the writing was so journalistic and the stories were so short (about twenty pages each). As a whole, these short stories are snapshots of life and not beginning-middle-end stories. I did have to laugh about my “no-ending” complaint when I got to this passage in Kids:
“That’s the end of the story?” I said.
He shrugged. “I got out after that tour and started working for Raytheon.”
“Jesus, Murray,” I said. “You’re telling me you don’t know what happened? You don’t know if Walsh ever figured out what the kid said?”
Murray looked at me and grinned. What he was saying without saying was: “You dumb son of a bitch, of course he never figured it out.”
This book is mostly about men who were broken by the war and men who were broken before it even began. One of the main themes of These Heroic, Happy Dead is isolation. The men in this book have become part of a closed network and have trouble transitioning back into civilian life or relating to their loved ones. Many of them returned to the military after a disappointing stint back home. It’s depressing in an “it is what it is” type way. I was struck by the immediacy of this work in the acknowledgments, where Mogelson thanked those “who still live in a country that is too perilous for me to be able to name them here.”; a salient reminder that while the war has faded from the news, it is not over. If you liked Redeployment, you might like this one. If you were turned off by Redeployment because of the sexual content or acronyms but like the general idea of it, you might want to give this book a try instead.
Ours was a war that offered few opportunities, aside from getting killed or wounded, to distinguish yourself. There were no hills to charge, peninsulas to hold, bridges to seize. There was only the patrol: a year’s worth of mine-littered walks ending where they started.(Kids)
*I received this Advanced Reader’s Edition through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. These Heroic, Happy Dead will be released in April 2016.