(Amazon Kindle Singles, 2016)
Vez and Rake aren’t sorry to be deployed to the desert. This is what they trained for; this is what they’re meant to be doing. But when a mission gone south and ends with Rake picking pieces of one of their comrades out of the desert sand, Rake comes out of the desert carrying far more than a new scar across his face. “What was that old song?” Rake asks, near-hysterical as he and what’s left of his squad prepare to leave what’s left of Cammack behind. “Oh well, what the hell?”
The rest of them survive multiple deployments, carrying new traumas back home with them each time. But it’s the battles they face on returning to their families that form the backbone of Battle Rattle, a novella by Brandon Davis Jennings. Snappy and quick-moving, Battle Rattle is a war story set on the home front. It is darkly funny and then simply dark, but never anything but authentic in its chronicling of Vez’s struggle to adjust to life in between deployments.
For Vez and Rake, “adjusting” usually means practicing every self-destructive behavior in the book. Vez drinks and drives, gets into brawls, and refuses to tape his knuckles so that they bleed when he punches his bag. When he finally gives in, it’s so “neither Ariel nor Kaylynn could come out there and tell me I was stupid for hurting myself in a way that was so easy to prevent.” Yet self-inflicted pain is a means to an end for Vez and his fellow soldiers, who were sent home with no other form of release other than the violence they thought they were leaving behind.
While deployed, violence was expected and condoned. But when Vez returns home he discovers that the violence he experienced and performed has become a habit – and now there is no place for it. Vez cannot talk to his wife Kaylynn about seeing his friend Cammack blown to pieces, or the bodies he saw impaled on spikes. Those memories stay inside of him, and inside of Rake: a constant division between them and the civilian world they are trying to live in. Every time Vez goes home he tells himself this is the life he’s fighting to protect – but surrounded by the confusion and drama of normal existence, he finds it difficult to understand why he’s defending a world which offers nothing but isolation in return.
Battle Rattle provides a visceral window into the nail-biting boredom Vez faces, suburban claustrophobia mixing nauseously with the lingering tension of conflict. The only people truly capable of understanding what Vez is going through are his fellow soldiers. In combat, they had each other’s backs by shooting the guys that might have shot them first. Off the battlefield, protecting each other is not so simple.
The novella is told out of sequence, and we learn early on that Rake’s fate is not a happy one. He breaks his back in a drunken accident, trying to sit down on a chair he pushed just a little too far away; later, he commits suicide in his own garage. He’s found lying next to a bizarre collection of wooden boards, meticulously glued and planed, with a single phrase carved into them: “Oh well, what the hell?” The words are an echo of the day Rake saw Cammack blown up in the desert, the same nihilist, absurdly blasé refrain, as meaningless as the inexplicable wooden boards it’s carved upon. Vez comments “Rake’s the biggest asshole of us all because he just swallowed a bottle of pills and died in his garage because of a war he was fighting inside of himself.”
It’s the apparently pointless stupidity of everything that gets to Vez in the end, from Rake’s drunken accident to his own struggles to cope. Battle Rattle’s tone is one of ironic tragedy, made even more compelling by Vez’s utter lack of self-pity. As the novella goes on Vez loses his perspective on all violence, whether it’s acted on himself or on others. On returning from deployment, Vez and Rake pay a visit to a man who abused Rake’s girlfriend; Vez drops a fridge on his head, nearly killing him. Later Vez returns to that house, finds it abandoned, and takes a painting home with him. He describes it as
a road that goes to nowhere, a road no one drives on; a road and a night sky and Joshua trees; sand that is sliced by that pointless road; that phrase: A Man Apart.
The futility and isolation of that painting comes to haunt Vez the same way that the words “Oh well, what the hell?” followed Rake into an early grave. When staring at “A Man Apart” Vez says to Kaylynn: “Sometimes words are just there. Sometimes they aren’t meant to be understood.”
Battle Rattle is a narrative powerhouse, funny and poignant and vividly real. It’s all too easy to devour the book in a single sitting, and be ready to go back for more. The novella provides all the tension and pacing of a page-turner with rich, human characters and brilliantly crafted prose. Though Jennings, himself an Iraq war veteran, tells Vez’s story in a delightfully ironic tone that is always aware of Vez’s own misery, there are moments when the prose cuts right to the bone. After his most horrifying experience in the desert, Vez thinks to himself:
But put a boy out of his misery when he’s already dead? That was impossible: unless the boy who’s being put out of his misery is actually a boy inside the man who shot the dead boy. And as romantic as that sounds, the metaphors we choose for ourselves are rarely the metaphors that truly surround us.
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickson University, currently living in Washington D.C.
You can read more from Brandon Davis Jennings in TLR’s Early Fall 2013 issue, Cry Baby.