Through seven stories and a novella, Barnes (Dummy Up and Deal: Inside the Culture of Casino Dealing, 2002, etc.) explores the lives, legacies and memories of veterans, all damaged by their war experiences.
The best story in the collection, “Groundwork,” is also the most atypical, a wicked little satire on contemporary culture. Among other possibilities for a new reality-television show (Niagara Falls Kayak Team Jumping and Miss-Heavenly-Ankles Beauty Pageant were mercifully scratched), the programming genius Mr. K (shades of Kafka) endorses the brilliant idea to have gangs duke it out on live television. “They kill each other anyhow, right?” one of his minions reasons. Mr. K knows that Americans have an insatiable appetite for violence: “They want death and they want it live.” So the The Gangbanger Grand Prix is off and running. Barnes does not indulge his penchant for satire often enough, however, for many of the stories are drearily serious and overly predictable. In “Punishment,” a vet awaits his execution for having killed a cop. “Minimal Damage” focuses on Rodney, a black Gulf War vet who has unknowingly purchased a house that formerly belonged to a serial killer. As bodies are discovered in the basement, Rodney reviews the unfairness with which these violent acts are visited upon his marriage, his career and his standing in the community. In “Into the Silence,” a Vietnam vet experiences posttraumatic stress disorder complicated by paranoia and delusions. “Snake Boy” is a novella focusing on Pate, who’s rescued from postwar drug issues by Bristol, a shady preacher traveling around the Southwest states. Pate fulfills the role announced by the title, caring for the 12 snakes—named after the disciples—that Bristol needs for his revival services.
Occasionally turgid prose mars this work about damage and loss.