Q & A #79 – Christopher Bartley, “A Season Past”

Christopher Bartley is back.

His new book is A Season Past.

That title sounds like it could belong to one of his noir gangster novels about Ross Duncan (there are eight), but it’s not.

It’s a trilogy of stories – two novellas and one short piece – about men returning from war. The first piece is set decades after the Civil War, but heavily informed by it. The second is set immediately after World War II. And the third is set in the modern day but haunted by Vietnam. My review for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Spoiler: I liked it. A lot. It’s worthy of comparisons to Tim O’Brien or Kevin Powers.

A Season Past is the confluence of a sharp writer and a powerful subject – the impact of war on returning soldiers. Bartley is well-versed in the topic, as the Q & A below makes clear.  A recent study Bartley conducted on U.S. Army suicides going back to 1819 drew wide attention. As Bartley’s answers reveal, he’s given this topic a lot of thought. And analysis.

As soldiers today are deployed to the Middle East – and as the U.S. enters Year #19 of the War in Afghanistan (Year 19!) – A Season Past asks whether we understand all the costs of war, including the fallout on the home front.

Thanks to Christopher Bartley for taking the time to answer these questions.

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Question: Can you walk us through the process of putting these three pieces together? Was the theme something you had in mind at first and then you found the stories to go with it? Or did you have these stories in mind and then realized there was an underlying connection?

Christopher Bartley: I wrote the first novella (A Season Past) in the early 1990s and it sat unseen in my computer files for decades.  In about 2015 my agent, Sonia Land, asked me if I had any unpublished work that might be worth revisiting, so I shared it with her and she loved it.  However, it was too short to publish on its own, so I pulled out a short story written in 2009 (Apache Tears).  Then a few years ago I wrote another novella (The Cold Ardennes) to serve as a bridge between them.  I didn’t put much thought to the thematic connection between them.  The middle story just flowed.

Question: I know it might sound like an obvious question, but do those of us who have never seen combat have any idea how soldiers can be haunted by what they’ve seen—and done? Do we have any idea what it’s like to struggle mentally to return to regular life?

Christopher Bartley: No.  For better and for worse, most of us in industrialized countries have little experience with violence and death.  For the most part, we no longer kill our own meat, die at home, prepare our dead, or defend our homes and communities from invaders.  We outsource all of that now.  The men and women who serve as our law enforcement, fire fighters, first responders, emergency room medical providers, and military have little cultural preparation anymore.  When most people think of war, they think of what they have seen in video games and movies.  But I’m pretty sure that real life combat does not occur in slow motion with inspiring music playing.  Also, we have shed the rituals and processes that humans have used for thousands of years to help their returning warriors reintegrate.

The transition back to civilian life is a difficult process.  Imagine giving up the life you have now, everything you have practiced and learned, to be relocated to another world.  This other world seems similar – it includes many of the same people and relies on a similar language – but the culture is different, expectations are different, there is no shared mission, your prior skills don’t easily translate into a meaningful vocation, and the society you find yourself does not truly understand or relate to what you used to do.

All that said, we need to be careful not to assume life-long pathology is the outcome for those who serve.  While some combatants struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse, most do not.  The vast majority live good lives and are productive members of our society.

Question: Why these three specific settings?

Christopher Bartley

Christopher Bartley: Like my prior writing, these are American stories – fictional stories about the kind of people who lived in these times and have shaped the character of America.  The Civil War, WWII, and Vietnam War were seminal events in our history, though my stories focus not on the wars themselves, but how individual men and women related to their world after their war was over.

Question: Could you fill us in a little bit on your background and what gives you these insights about veterans who come home from war? Were you ever in the military?

Christopher Bartley: I have never served in the military.  When I was six my father served in Vietnam as a physician in the Air Force; when I was ten I was fascinated by great grandfather who told me about his experiences in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, including the battle of San Juan Hill; and as an adolescent my parents raised me within the Quaker faith.  When I turned 18 I had to decide whether I would register for the draft or claim conscious objector status.  I registered for the draft.

Since obtaining a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1992 I have devoted my “day job” to helping both veterans and activity military personnel.  From 1992-2006 I was a psychologist working in a VA medical center and conducting research; since 2006 I’ve continued to conduct research and do private consulting.  On the research side, I have over 300 scientific publications (under my real name: B. Christopher Frueh), including a recent study of U.S. Army suicides going back to 1819 that was published in JAMA Network Open this past December.  My coauthors on that were actual historians.  Over the past 28 years I have done a good bit of contract work with the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense.

Over the past decade most of my private consulting, much of it pro bono, has been with the special forces community: Army special forces, Navy SEALS, including many from the Tier One units.  Some of my closest, most intimate friends now are men who have spent virtually their entire adult lives at war, often with 10-15 combat deployments and literally hundreds of missions.  Put another way, I’ve known men who served at the Battle of San Juan Hill (1898), carried out the UBL mission (2011), and almost everything in between.

Question: How much research was involved—the Civil War incidents that weigh on Coltrane? The World War II incidents that haunt the narrator of the “The Cold Ardennes?”

Christopher Bartley: I didn’t need to do much specific research for these stories because I have read widely about American military history.  I have more Civil War books on the shelf in my office than I have psychology books.  I enjoy developing stories around American historical events and periods that I know well.

Question: One obvious comparison is that in “A Season Past,” the trouble comes to Coltrane. He’s protecting his land. In “A Cold Ardennes,” the narrator clearly knows the trouble he’s getting into—and has plenty of opportunity to back out and/or back away from a very public crime in the heart of his Texas town. Was this a contrast you wanted to make?

Christopher Bartley: I don’t think trouble comes to anyone.  We only find it or create it ourselves.

Question: You made a conscious choice not to name the narrator of “The Cold Ardennes.” Several times the narrator is given the chance to introduce himself to a character but, no detail is given. What was your thinking about approaching it this way?

Christopher Bartley: He’s a nameless, anonymous GI returning from the European theater at the end of WWII.  Most of them were nameless, anonymous, but collectively they managed to do something absolutely incredible.

Question: You’ve got eight Ross Duncan novels under your belt (if I’m counting correctly)? How did it feel to write something completely different (even if Ross might have been right at home in the scenes toward the end of “The Cold Ardennes”)?

Christopher Bartley: The hardest part was getting away from the voice of Ross Duncan.  I missed Duncan, so after I finished this book, I wrote another Duncan novel, which I hope will be published in Spring 2020.

Question: What are you working on next?

Christopher Bartley: Always another Ross Duncan novel, a couple of books that I’m writing with buddies of mine from the special forces community – including one about violence and killing, and the ninth edition of a graduate textbook on adult psychopathology.  And also of course, The Great American Novel!

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Previously reviewed:

Sleep Not, My Child

 

 

 

Unto The Daughters of Men

 

 

 

Naked Shall I Return

(Link includes previous Q & A)

 

2019: Top Books

Highlights from reading in 2019. The order is irrelevant. These are from titles I read last year, not necessarily published in 2019.

 

FICTION

1. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

2. Heaven My Home by Attica Locke

3. The Chain by Adrian McKinty

4. The Warehouse by Rob Hart

5. A Season Past by Christopher Bartley (review to come)

6. Fobbit by David Abrams

7. Drowning With Others by Linda Keir

8. A Perfect Eye by Stephanie Kane

9. Church of the Graveyard Saints by Chuck Greaves

10. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

11. The Dead Girl in 2A by Carter Wilson

12. Bad Axe County by John Galligan

13. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

14, Low Country Blood by Sue Hinkin

15. If The Ice Had Held by Wendy J. Fox

16. A Deadly Divide by Ausma Zehanat Khan

17. Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

NON-FICTION

1. Girl to City by Amy Rigby

2. The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik

3. K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner

4. Power Ball by Rob Neyer

5. The Storm on our Shores by Mark Obmascik

6. Sandy Koufax – A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy

7. Ninety Percent Mental by Bob Tewksbury

Laila Lalami, “The Other Americans”

The details are all, well, so normal. American.

After hearing the news of her father’s death, Nora Guerraoui rushes home from Oakland to her family home in the Mojave desert. She drives “in the foggy darkness that cloaked almond groves and orange orchards.” At home, her heels tap the travertine floor. There’s a copy of Reader’s Digest and a photo frame askew in the hallway.

“It seemed to me then that my father was still with us—in the half-empty packet of Marlboros on the windowsill, the frayed slippers under the coffee table, the tooth marks on the pencil that stuck out from the book of crossword puzzles.”

Almond groves. Reader’s Digest. Marlboros. Crossword puzzles.

Nora’s father is Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant. Driss ran a restaurant—corn hash, fried cheese sticks. It’s called The Pantry. Driss was killed in a hit-and-run accident at a dangerous intersection. Already the police want to know if Driss had money troubles or if he used drugs or gambled. Did he have enemies?

Nora stares out across the street at a neighbor deflating a giant Easter bunny “that had sat for weeks in his front yard, gathering dust. It stared back with grotesque eyes as its white ears collapsed under his shoes.”

The Other Americans isn’t only Nora’s story. The Other Americans is narrated by many, well, American voices. There’s young cop and Iraq war vet, Jeremy Gorecki, who was high school friends with Nora. Efraín, a Mexican immigrant and eyewitness who has good reasons not to report what he saw.  We hear from Maryam, Driss’s widow and Nora’s mother. And we hear from Detective Erica Coleman, too. And others including Nora’s sister Salma and A.J., who runs a bowling alley, and A.J.’s father.  Driss comes alive, too, to fill in gaps and to share his hopes and plans. The voices are distinct and sharply drawn. They are all told first-person. The chapters are brisk. The effect is a kind of pixelated narration. The pieces slowly gain focus. And edge. Humanity oozes from every pore.

The Other Americans is part police procedural. There is the question of who hit Driss. But Lalani is interested in the chorus around the accident—and the connective threads among them. One of the hallway photos in the Guerrauoi home is of the high school jazz band, which included Jeremy. “It occurred to me I had never been inside her house before,” thinks Jeremy, “and yet for ten years my likeness had waited for me on that wall.” Immigration is a theme but Lalani doesn’t beat readers over the head with it. Everyone arrived in the Mojave from somewhere else. (Everybody might be on the way somewhere else as well.)

Lalani plays it straight. The overall tone is cool, borderline dispassionate. Everyone gets their due. Thinks A.J.: “It’s funny, everyone goes on and on about celebrating diverse cultures, but the minute you bring up white culture, the oh-so-enlightened liberals turn on you and call you names. Someone sent a letter to the editor calling me a racist, which is what they call anyone who’s a straight white man these days. Everyone else can be proud of their heritage, but not me?”

Hopes and dreams contrast with basic human desire for safety and stability. Jeremy pursues long-lingering feelings for Nora. And Nora, who had dreams of becoming a composer, adjusts her expectations in the wake of her father’s death. There are secrets. Jeremy tries to protect Nora from his less open-minded friends—and fails. Lalani’s background details are all-American touches—dog shows, video games, call-in advice on the radio, job promotions, so on. Not everyone is what they seem. A random moment leads to resolution in the hit-and-run case and Nora gains new perspective on her own upbringing in the U.S.A.  The Other Americans is powerful, believable, grounded, and keen-eyed. And what of the other? Well, in America, that word covers a lot of ground.

Amy Rigby, “Girl to City”

My review of Amy Rigby’s Girl to City for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Attica Locke, “Heaven, My Home”

My review of Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke, for the New York Journal of Books, is posted here.

Adrian McKinty, “The Chain”

The Chain will tie you in knots. It’s tense from the first few paragraphs. The premise is chilling. The jeopardy is real; it’s jeopardy on steroids. So your daughter has been kidnapped? The only way to ensure her release is to pay a big ransom, even though it’s not really about the money, and successfully kidnap another child. Got it? Good. No cops. No reporters. “Those are deal-breakers.” You better get moving (pronto!) and also know that every move you make (every breath you take) will be monitored. The chain must not be broken. The chain will not be broken. Yeah, you’re a victim. Get over it. Very soon you’ll be a criminal. It’s the only way out.

Adrian McKinty’s diabolical premise is told in brisk, punchy fashion. The setting is Plum Island, north of Boston, and nearby towns. It’s a week past Halloween. The latest link in the chain is Rachel Klein, divorced mother of Kylie. Kylie is thirteen. Kylie gets kidnapped in the opening moments of The Chain. She’s waiting at her bus stop and drops her phone when a man in a ski mask points a gun at her chest.

What would you do if you were Rachel? McKinty makes us feel every one of Rachel’s panicked reactions as she follows the instructions to keep her daughter alive. There are burner phones to buy, search engines to download, corners of the dark web to explore, and twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of Bitcoin to buy and transfer. What’s Bitcoin? What’s the dark web? If that’s not enough, this high-stakes emergency means Rachel must skip the scheduled appointment with her oncologist, who has seen a problem in her blood work.

For the first half The Chain we flip back and forth both Rachel and Kylie, who proves resilient and wily in captivity. Rachel needs to identify a target, quickly come up with a plan for a kidnapping, and pull it off. And of course Rachel’s success depends on the parents of her kidnap victim following the same wicked instructions Rachel is expected to follow. When it’s clear those parents have decided to go improv, Rachel and brother-in-law Pete (a Marine Corps vet with substance abuse issues) need to step in and, well, make adjustments.

McKinty piles jeopardy on jeopardy. Nothing, naturally, goes smoothly. McKinty goes from short staccato bursts of tension to lyrical scene-setting. And, along the way, he slips in references to Camus, H.P. Lovecraft, Schopenauer, and Urusala Le Guin (“Tombs of Atuan”). And, much later on in The Chain (in a second section that explains the roots of the terrible scheme) there’s a reference Sarah Bakewell and The Existentialist Café, among others. As fast a pace as The Chain sets, McKinty leaves behind breadcrumbs for a larger point about choices, life in focus, and human capability in dire circumstances.

If Bakewell is a clue, there’s this relevant quote from The Existentialist Café as Bakewell contemplates the messages of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Nothing stops us but our own free choosing. If we want to survive, we have to decide to live.”

From the moment The Chain starts, you will feel that your own free choosing is very much at stake. And, like Rachel, even with death very close at hand, you will feel very much alive (but try to tell yourself they’re only words on a page).

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Previously reviewed:

Rain Dogs

 

Rob Hart, “The Warehouse”

In “The Unstoppable Machine,” in the Oct. 21 (2019) edition of The New Yorker, reporter Charles Duhigg looks behind the scenes of the mammoth operation that is Amazon. The article recounts worrisome stories of the rugged working conditions, details the company’s cold and ruthless approach to competition, takes us inside the highly driven corporate culture (“spinning flywheels”) and paints a portrait of founder Jeff Bezos’ quirky style and endless ambition.

Read it. You might think twice the next time a driver drops an item on your doorstep. The arrival of that next package might prod a very different image in your head of all systems and people it took to fulfill your personal shopping needs. The work environment sounds especially inhuman. More than 100,000 people work in Amazon fulfillment centers, we learn, and every movement is tracked and evaluated. Falling behind? You could be reprimanded. “Many employees carry handheld scanners that deliver a constant stream of instructions, such as a countdown clock detailing how many seconds remain until the next item must be plucked from a shelf. Workers can walk more than fifteen miles a day, and their breaks, including trips to the bathroom, are brief and closely measured.” The measurements alone can lead to warnings—or terminations.

Of course, Amazon is about much more than shopping. The New Yorker points out that the company collected $26 billion last year from its Web-services division, which has little to do with selling things to consumers, and $14 billion from subscription services such as Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited. “No other tech company does as many unrelated things, on such a scale, as Amazon.,” writes Duhigg.

In The Warehouse, Rob Hart takes the Amazon monster, jacks it up, peers a year or twenty into the future (or is it a month?), and tells a big-sweep cautionary tale about corporate greed and the inhumanity of such data-driven, mechanized mega-corporations looking to squeeze every ounce of profit they can out of every worker bee. Yes, heavy on tech and heavy on human energy. (If you think it’s robots grabbing your orders off the Amazon warehouse shelves, read that New Yorker story.) In Hart’s world, Amazon is “the Cloud.” The landscape outside its corporate-run worker villages is bleak and useless. For many reasons, including a series of mass shootings, regular old retail shops have been wiped out. Getting a job with the Cloud means security (and cramped quarters) and a dependable future (even if every bathroom break is monitored). The Cloud is Borg-like. You will assimilate. Algorithms pick your shirt color. Your shirt color determines your function.

Into the Cloud come Paxton and Zinnia. Paxton is a former prison guard, whose invention was snatched up by the Cloud. Zinnia, we soon learn, is working to infiltrate the Cloud and, well, we’re not told everything—at least not right away. All we know at the beginning is that Zinnia has tried hacking the Cloud from the outside, but it’s impossible, “like trying to scratch through a concrete wall with a fingernail.” To do what she needs to do, she’s got to go along and get along. And get inside. But Zinnia’s job as a “picker” reads every bit as much like reporting from the piece by Duhigg as she tries to keep her new employer happy by hustling—and making sure her all-knowing watch remains happy.

“With each item, Zinnia’s feet ached a little more. Soon her shoulders joined in, creaking in the joints, muscles throbbing. She stopped a few times along the wall or in a quiet corner, so she could loosen or tighten her boots, looking for a sweet spot that would keep them from ripping apart her feet. But the yellow bar was relentless. If she stopped long enough she cold watch the slow creep of it. Once or twice, when she really hoofed it, it turned green, but only ever for a moment.”

Yes, continuous feedback. The world-building in The Warehouse is thorough. Hart doesn’t rush our introduction to the Cloud and it pays off. As Paxton and Zinnia immerse themselves in the vast interior spaces, we also see dark underbellies such as drug abuse and unchecked (and brutal) sexual harassment. The Cloud, by no means, is a cure for what ails the workplace.

We get observations along the way from Bezos-esque Gibson Wells, the most powerful man in the world, who is touring Cloud facilities around the country and reflecting on his decisions and his life, now that he’s dying from pancreatic cancer. Wells tells us how he developed the employee rating system—and why.  Wells tells us about his all-American approach to employee dismissals. (“Point is, a job has to be something you earn. It’s not something that’s just going to get handed to you. That’s the American imperative: strive for greatness.”) And he confides in us, at least to a point, about his thoughts for who will succeed him. We are offered the scary proposition of a corporation regulating itself (or not) simply through appropriating government functions. (See any newspaper today for Amazon’s failed bid to win the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud—yes, cloud—contract.) Wells may see a few issues here and there, but believes he has given the world a gift.

Paxton and Zinnia bump into each other at first, bump into each other again, and are soon a thing—though we know more about Zinnia’s true motives than does the ex-prison guard, at least at first. Zinnia uncovers a dark secret about the facility’s, um, nutritional sources. Paxton starts to notice some peculiar potential security breaches. Gibson Wells makes his way to the warehouse facility where Paxton and Zinnia toil and Zinnia pulls the trigger on a plan to carry through on her undercover mission, and the big finish is full of cinematic flourishes.

Written in a matter-of-fact style (the true thriller elements pick up only toward the end), The Warehouse offers a thoughtful look at the future we’re building (each order helps!) on the backs of others.

Is The Warehouse a bleak dystopian warning, much like the books it references (The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451)? Or is The Warehouse a prescient extrapolation of what exists today? Either way, it’s an engrossing story that, unfortunately for us all, is based on a whole lot of truth.

Doug Glanville, “The Game From Where I Stand”

Doug Glanville’s The Game From Where I Stand offers a winning combination—a likable narrator and a mountain of colorful details about life off the field and inside the game of baseball.

Minor leagues. Opening days. Glove selection. Coaches. Stress. Anxiety. Relationships. Autographs. Game preparation. Contracts. Money. Retirement. Winter ball. Dealing with reporters. Spring training. Hitting. Traveling. I’m hard-pressed to think of a subject Glanville doesn’t cover and he does it all with an appealing style. What does it feel like to be a professional baseball player? Glanville puts the reader solidly in one player’s cleats.

Glanville, who has written columns for The New York Times and other outlets, comes across as likable and easy-going. Glanville played in the majors from 1996 to 2004, primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies. He also also had two stints with the Chicago Cubs and one year with the Texas Rangers. This book was published in 2010 and, well, my only wish is for a more current account that includes how a player views the heavy-duty use of analytics in the game today.

What Glanville does explore, however, seems relatively timeless—particularly the kinds of attitudes ball players develop in order to survive. Glanville did not take being a major leaguer for granted. He played worried. He played with the daily concern that either performance or injury might lead to being demoted or traded. “One team’s trash is another’s treasure,” writes Glanville “I can say I have been both, and either way you slice it, you can’t help but feel like property, even if only for a moment.”

Glanville thanks Jimmy Rollins, who was his protégé, for a poignant piece of advice: Do it afraid. “A healthy amount of fear can lead to great results, to people pushing themselves to the brink of their capabilities … Yes, baseball players are afraid. A player’s career is always a blink in a stare. I retired at the ripe old age of thirty-four following a season of sunflower seeds and only 162 at bats. I had been a starter the year before. In this game, change happens fast.”

Coming up behind every major leaguer is a new crop of players who are younger, faster, stranger (and don’t cost as much). “There is a tipping point in a player’s career where he goes from chasing the dream to running from a nightmare. At that point, ambition is replaced by anxiety; passion is replaced with survival. It is a downhill run, and it spares no one.”

Glanville makes it clear that being a major league baseball player requires living inside a bubble. Glanville is particularly blunt here about the focus and dedication required—as well as the fallout from that level of commitment. “No one keeps statistics for DFP (Depressed Former Players) or DAR (Divorces After Retirement), but I assure you they are plentiful … Behind the bluster and bravado, they are as uncertain and fragile as any other human beings.”

That’s the over-arching flavor of this account, a real human being living a life inside the game. Glanville’s details are terrific—like seeing Randy Johnson eating breakfast at iHOP or his warm-hearted tales from playing winter ball in Puerto Rico—and his reactions at every turn seem genuine. He’s not afraid to reveal how he misplayed a ball that could have kept a no-hitter intact, for instance, and he gives a thoughtful analysis of the whole Steve Bartman alleged interference debacle (Glanville was with the Cubs at the time).

Unlike so many others, Glanville did not become another DFP or DAR stat. He had a level head and open eyes about every phase of the game—and the same thing applied when it came time for Glanville to plan his post-career life (which from all accounts has been successful both in broadcasting and business). Like baseball itself, this book is very much about the game and, of course, it’s about everything else, too. Baseball is life.