- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Matthew Komatsu
Best Defense guest reviewer
Jesse Goolsby’s debut novel is an unexpected story of war as told through its three protagonists: Wintric Ellis, Big Dax, and Torres. The book reads larger than its 292 pages would imply because it isn’t one story about going to war. There are three distinct story arcs, and each narrative is particular to the protagonist who anchors it. The book opens in Afghanistan as Wintric, Dax, and Torres hand out prosthetic limbs to Afghans on a recognizably ill-defined humanitarian mission. From here, the narrative braids outward, backward, and forward as each character unfolds to the reader from before, during, and after the war. Goolsby’s character-driven book resists tidy plot summary but here’s my best shot.
Three men carry their humanity to war. Wintric Ellis escapes the life sentence of having grown up in a dead-end town while Dax and Torres represent the best of the modern American experiment: convict fathers, dead mothers, and broken homes. War hurts each of them in separate ways — without giving too much away, there is a sexual assault, a moral injury, and a wound to family ties — and Goolsby forces each to come to grips with the dirty layers the war lays bare. Wintric returns home a shell of his former self. Big Dax must navigate the haze of reintegration amid an atmosphere of skin-deep support. Torres returns a stranger to those he loves, and learns what it means to trade his service as employment currency. The lives of all three characters before and during the war reside in the front third of the book, but Goolsby is far more concerned with What Comes Next, and spends the rest of the book peeling back the lives of his characters on a continuum of action/reaction until the story leads to its ultimate, tragic conclusion generations down the line.
Goolsby, whose bio of short story publications and awards reads like a checklist for The Guy Who’s Doing It Right, knows that writing a hell of a short piece in no way guarantees success in the transition to its longer cousin. So I was pleased to see him pull it off with such aplomb. The structure of the novel is challenging, but Goolsby employs ruthless thematic control in order keep the narrative clipping along. His knack for dialogue and timing is impeccable and he’s aces at crafting scene while delivering just enough restrained reflection to pull everything together. Finally, in a time when “authentic” has become a tired book review catch-phrase, Goolsby writes outside the bounds of his experience as an Air Force personnel officer with a sense of empathy that allows him to see his protagonists as humans first. The characters, all soldiers, emerge not as appropriative, but additive as they leap from the page with a sublime humanity that is as profound as it is disappointing.
Goolsby’s freshman outing achieves much in telling a compelling story about three lives set against the temporary backdrop of war. Yes, it’s a war novel. Yes, he’s a military author. But beyond this, labels fade behind the brilliance of I’d Walk as a remarkable telling of the modern American experience.
Matthew Komatsu is a lieutenant colonel in the Alaska Air National Guard, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and MFA candidate in the University of Alaska’s Nonfiction Program. You can find more of his work at www.matthewkomatsu.com or follow him on Twitter @matthew_komatsu. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, the Defense Department or any branch of the United States government.
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