Uneven memoir of a Marine’s service in Iraq and his ongoing recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder.
At times, when he writes unflinchingly about the inner conflicts that compelled him to tell his story, Van Winkle’s prose crackles with Exleyesque intensity and black humor. He wanted to be one of those “street fighters, thugs, drunks, and rednecks” who constitute typical Marines, he declares. When he deployed to Iraq in 2003 he was. He walked the talk, as full of bravado and guff as any of his buddies, whose lewd jokes and crude games made the day-to-day horrors of war more bearable. He couldn’t seem to find his place in back civilian life without them. But he was also, when he returned to the States, one of those out-of-shape English lit majors the Marine in him could not bring himself to respect. Ironically, if Van Winkle had reined in that English major more firmly, if he had been less arty and more faithful to the truth, this would have been a better book. Too often, the author relies on the sorts of clichéd storytelling tricks commonly found in comic books, tricks that were already clichés when they were borrowed from film noir and war movies. As Van Winkle’s past and present merge and interact, his text sometimes seems both artificial and incomplete, resembling a film treatment or the “novel” part of a graphic novel more than a full-fledged memoir. This artiness distracts from the author’s grim memories and his serious struggle with PTSD. Fortunately, when he focuses on his emotions, confronting his doubts about the war and his guilt for doubting it while Marines are still fighting and dying in it, he earns the hard-boiled edge of his prose.
At its best, a powerful reminder of the human cost of the war.