(New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
It’s strange how you can see the same things day after day and not give them a second thought. I ride a train into work every day. I keep my head down and my earbuds in, trying to avoid reality for as long as I can. In the corner of the station’s stairwell, there is a man wrapped in blankets who sits on a pickle bucket. He has a cardboard sign that reads, “I am an Iraq War Vet. I lost my legs. I need help. God Bless America.” I’m usually running late for work, so I turn my music up and walk right past him. It wasn’t until I started reading Jesse Goolsby’s debut novel, I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, that I began to look at this man through a different lens.
Like the man in the train station, the soldiers in Goolsby’s book have returned home to a life that has passed them by. The fact is that before I ever opened to a page in the book, I knew that this is what it would be about. And that is what makes Goolsby’s work such a powerful and rewarding read; it never stretches reality. It does not play loose with the facts or make situations unbelievable. I Would Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them is the ugly truth that you don’t see on CNN or hear in debates on Sunday morning news shows. It’s not about battles or raids. It’s about people who are caught in a perpetual loop of memories, trying to make sense of the thing that most of us take for granted each day: life.
The novel opens in Afghanistan with soldiers handing out prosthetic limbs. Not limbs for other soldiers that have come back home minus their arms and legs, but limbs for Afghani men, women, and children. Plastic arms and legs being given out in kind one minute and bombs exploding and drawn weapons the next—this juxtaposition is a startling introduction to the banality of daily life in a war zone. Goolsby doesn’t crank up the action, opening with a firefight or a bombing. Instead, he reveals right away that these are regular people, having conversations about metal bands and sports teams, or daydreaming about the life back home, all while trying to just get through the day alive.
The story finds its center around Wintric Ellis, a new recruit who left behind the love of his young life in search of a meaningful existence and future outside of his rural California mill town. While deployed in Afghanistan, Wintric befriends two senior soldiers, Big Dax and Torres, who show him the ropes but also give this bright eyed rookie soldier a lesson in the harsh realities of that life he left behind: “‘No one is ever waiting, my friend,’ says Big Dax. ‘They’re living and moving on. And don’t get mad. It sucks, but it’s true.’”
For all of these men and women serving overseas, there is a constant struggle between distancing oneself from what you left behind in order to hang on to your sanity, and always keeping an idyllic picture of that place called home in the front of your mind to try and keep a glimmer of hope alive. Either way, no matter how it is presented, it is always a fight for survival. The idea of never being able to really return home again, to pick up right where you left off, is a theme that manifests itself throughout the book from the first pages to the last:
“One day the people we are trying to kill will be in charge again,” says Torres. “One day soon we’ll negotiate with these fucks, even though they’ve killed us and tortured us and today we’re trying to kill them. No one will remember 2004 or us breathing in the fucking burn-pit smoke or the bomb that almost took off my arm. None of this will have happened. So yes, I think about who’s waiting for me, because if I think about all this, I’m done.”
Goolsby doesn’t unfold the narrative in a nice straight line. Instead, he bounces around and jumps backwards and forwards through time, catching our soldiers and their loved ones at various points in their lives. Each chapter focuses on a particular character at a point in time, either before, during, or after Afghanistan. None of these people—the wives and girlfriends, the sons and daughters, the fathers and mothers—will ever be the same. War does not reserve its damage only for those on the battlefield. Goolsby’s unflinching eye and blunt and devastating narrative make sure that this is not forgotten.
All three soldiers, Wintric, Dax and Torres, are similar in that they share a common desire to leave their lives behind in search of something greater than themselves. They are typical archetypes of the average American soldier, examples of a system that promises a sort of salvation for those with limited options, a fact that is not lost on the characters: “The army has to have people like me. That’s the point. Rich big-city kids don’t enlist. Why would they?”
Goolsby’s veterans return home to find that nothing has changed but, at the same time, everything has changed. They return home to tears, parades, and national anthems. A hard fought hero’s welcome for the returning soldier. Yet, after the songs and revelry die down, they are forced to come to grips with the brutal realization that life is going to continue. Life is going to move forward, leaving them little time to deal with all that they left behind. How ironic that these soldiers must always leave a part of their life behind in order to survive. They must leave their homes and families behind in order to cope with the horrors of Afghanistan, and now, back in those same homes, they desperately try to erase that Afghanistan experience as well:
Wintric has a harder time lately fighting off the days that circle in upon him, the logging town he swore he would escape, the girl he thought he was leaving forever as he headed off to basic training, the half a foot that slices him with shame.
It doesn’t matter where you stand on the issue of war or the politics or reasons behind it; wars are fought by people, and those people and their families are its casualties. We can’t underestimate how those casualties affect us all, taking away a part of humanity. I Would Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them never finds Goolsby lecturing or pontificating about the war; and instead he simply wishes to introduce us to the man sitting in that train station stairwell. This unflinching novel asks us to find these people and walk with them, if just for a little while.
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Chad Meadows’ work has appeared in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine and in The Squawk Back, where he is also the assistant editor.
TLR is proud to have first published two stories from Jesse Goolsby, both of which appear in re-worked forms within his debut novel. “Resurrecting a Body Half” was featured in the Winter 2011 issue, The Rogue Idea. You can also read “Pollice Verso” via TLR Online, which first appeared in the Late Fall 2013 issue, Artificial Intelligence.