In this unsettling debut, a young man raised in the middle-class comforts of America encounters war, love, and drug addiction.
After the narrator awakens on the first page, he is “looking for a shirt with no blood on it” and then for his rigs—the apparatus of heroin addiction—to get him and his partner, Emily, in shape for the day. She has to be at school by 10 a.m. to teach college students remedial writing. The two met at 18 and now they are 25, living in a Cleveland suburb. Walker opens and closes the story in the couples’ present at age 25, while the bulk looks back at how the unnamed narrator found Emily and lost her and went off to war in Iraq in 2005. The writing is raw, coarse, and sometimes forced: “Your new friends would eat the eyes out of your head for a spoon.” Yet it often has a brute power, tapping the unadorned, pointedly repetitive language of addiction or battle. The IED “took off both Jimenez’s legs and severed one of his arms almost completely. But he was still awake and he knew what was happening. He was screaming.” So many patrols deal with bombs or breaking into suspect houses: “Just IEDs. Just kicking doors. More IEDs. More doors.” Soldiers look for distraction. Two of them make snuff films with mice. Some do drugs because the Army stops checking urine. On his release from the Army, the narrator reconnects with Emily and copes with PTSD. “In these years I didn’t sleep and when I slept I dreamt of violence.” Heroin takes over, with its own awful monotony. They are “spending over a thousand dollars on dope, every week.” She keeps teaching. He robs banks.
A bleak tale told bluntly with an abundance of profanity but also of insight into two kinds of living hell.