In Admiration of Goolsby’s Debut
I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them
by Jesse Goolsby
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $24.00
I’ve written about this novel elsewhere, and I’ll repeat these sentences till I lose my voice: "I just read the most satisfying novel in years: Jesse Goolsby's I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them. It is not another war novel, but rather an earthquake-in-your-soul kind of novel. The kind of art that shakes you down to the core of your being." It makes you question who you are and what you thought you knew.
In fact, I appreciate this novel so much that I know I am going to wind up stealing dozens of moves from it. However, when I do, I won’t even know it, because Goolsby’s ingrained all of these elements—war, home invasion, rape, etc.—so deeply and concretely in my mind that I feel as if I have created them myself. I am reminded of the Frank O’Connor line, that in all great works of literature, we meet the author half way. That is, we co-create the scenes and so, because of the satisfying work we readers are doing with Goolsby, his sustained daydream narrative also becomes our sustained daydream narrative. That’s how I experienced the novel: as a vivid, concrete world filled with dynamic characters put under enormous pressure. I’ve referred to Goolsby’s characters several times as “people,” and I can remember the events of their lives as if they were memories of people I knew a long time ago. They, and their lives, are part of me—although a bit hazy as if from a dream, but a part of me nonetheless. What’s even greater is that not only does Goolsby render the lives of the three main characters fully, but he also lushly develops his minor characters—and there are a myriad of them.
For instance, one soldier’s daughters have a small subplot (a heartbreaking twenty-five pages, complete with aunts and grandchildren and a great grandchild) and one of the daughter’s is dating a policeman, Kevin, and even he gets an entire page to himself—the things he likes, has lived through, and wants all laid out in fine, concrete details in about 400 words. Everyone gets to be a true human in this novel and not just a plot device.
And what of these main characters, these three Army soldiers: Big Dax from New Jersey; Armando Torres, a Mormon raised in Colorado; and young Wintric Ellis from Chester, a small town in northern California? These soldiers, who are psychologically damaged by one pivotal moment in Afghanistan, search for human connection in their family, civilian, and professional lives. They fall headlong into religion, drugs, and work to try to gain some moment of absolution. Goolsby explores the challenges these men face before, during, and after their military tours.
This novel offers a sweet setup. From page one, we’re dropped, as if we were actual soldiers, straight into a serious scene on the war front. Next, we’re given all three men’s lives previous to the war, though there are no cause-and-effect offerings here. We just get to know where they came from and who they are. Then, we’re dropped back into the war and into the pivotal scene. Finally, we follow them home and into the rest of their lives and their families’ lives, and we witness the effects of war played out through violent regeneration, doubt, and isolation.
The novel begins and ends with Wintric Ellis, who “Newly arrived, pushes his size 8 boot into the spongy ground and feels the subtle five of the earth run through the ball of his foot, up his leg, and settle in his camouflaged hip. Green grass in Afghanistan, he thinks, water somewhere. He smells damp soil and grass, unexpected but familiar—Little League center field, Kristen in a California meadow—and attempts to make this thick-bladed greenery stick alongside the everywhere, suck-you-dry desert he had imagined.”
In this the first paragraph of the novel, Goolsby lays out his assignment: the things you think and imagine about Afghanistan, they just aren’t so. We don’t know what to expect and neither does the newbie soldier. And these soldiers aren’t about to get into some wild fire fight with the Taliban; no, they are inoculating the citizens whom Wintric thinks of as “the enemy.” I also appreciate how cleanly Goolsby dips into small flashbacks for his people, smooth free indirect discourse like in Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, which is an aptly comparable novel. Often when characters encounter some sensual experience, it leads to these quick, illuminative flashbacks or projections into their yearned for futures.
Listen: the novel’s been out for almost five months, so I don’t feel like I have to give you a “spoiler alert” heads up, but it wouldn’t matter if I did: the beauty of this novel isn’t its plot points; it’s in the experiences of its people, their lives. I think most of us want this kind of “novel of experience.” Joseph Campbell said, “I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” That’s what this book gives us: experience. In a dizzying array. If you’re looking for meanings, this ain’t your novel. Goolsby likes his plot to run out on long lines and fray apart till you sit stunned, jaw open, thinking, What the hell just happened? And that thought will haunt you for days. And it will be a good thing.
That’s what happens in the climactic scene of the character, Big Dax. It’s a wonderfully set up piece of suspense. Any modern crime writer will adore it. The soldiers have all returned home from war in tact (except for the psychological damage done) and Dax is now a travelling salesman. On one of his trips, he calls home to speak with his wife. She tells him there are men outside looking for her brother (who also lives with them and their daughter, both of whom are home at the time). A home invasion ensues and he has to describe to his wife how to prepare for the intruders—how to load the pistol, how to aim, how to fire. It’s a harrowing scene. The intruders intrude, as intruders will do, into her bedroom and the phone line goes dead. And Dax thinks, I didn’t tell her to switch the safety off. He calls 911 and then calls his wife again, only to get the answering machine. The scene ends there—a plot line run out on a rope that frays, because we never quite know what happens to the wife.
And that is exactly the point. We are put into Dax’s shoes; he’s helpless, we’re helpless, and we’re all of us left in the dark. In a doubling movement of great storytelling, Goolsby has just turned the table on a familiar war novel trope: The families and friends that soldiers leave behind don’t know what’s happening to their loved ones on the war front, can’t help them if they knew, are made powerless. Dax now knows in a flash, the horrifying impotency his wife felt while he was overseas. And now so do we. It’s a truly remarkable scene. In any other novel, this scene would still be riveting, but in this novel, it is devastating.
Early in the novel, Wintric Ellis gives a little bit of his philosophy on how to deal with terrorists. It echoes over half of our country’s thinking 15 years ago: “I’d happily blow [Bin Laden’s] fucking head off. There’s no gray area there.” Ok. He’s an easy target for our wrath. But what if Bin Laden were a little girl (I just enjoy saying that) approaching you, and she may or may not have a bomb strapped to her chest under a shawl? You think you see a bomb in a flash of wind whipping her clothes, but she’s 200 yards away. Now 180. Now 160. What do you do? She’s like ten years old and walking your way in pink pants and holding a soccer ball? No one else is around but you and other soldiers, and even if she is armed, how do you keep sane in a world that sends its children to suicide? In a world in which you have to kill children?
And by this time we’ve seen the childhoods of our three main soldiers—how they got to this decision-making moment in their lives. The rest of the novel is these men dealing with the decisions they’ve made and how they extend to their families. Dysfunctional is not the right word (too overused, imprecise, and ethereal). Nor is PTSD (too distant, scientific, and cold). Goolsby instead goes for fresh renderings of experiences of fear and doubt and anger. In Goolsby’s world, the soldier’s philosophy turns to shreds of confetti.
Here, he has been raped by a fellow soldier and other soldiers keep quiet. Here, he is disfigured (having torn his foot apart with a knife so he could get an early discharge) and addicted to pills. Here, he is stalking someone, who may or may not have committed the rape, across several state lines. Here, he can’t bring himself to shoot a man on the home front. There is nothing but gray area here.
In the first chapter, Wintric tells Torres and Dax, who are trying to keep him sane, help him cope, in the war, that "I don't need friends." That’s Wintric’s self-preservation for his personal identity and self-reliance, shirking any hint at vulnerability, and it's so foolish, because at that moment, what he needs is anyone, at all, on his side, and here they are, calling to him, offering his only hope of refuge, and he can't acknowledge or voice his deep yearning for possible salvation through these men.
This stoicism is bookended by the last chapter, during one of Wintric and Torres's phone calls, both men still searching for themselves years later—who they were, who they are, who they want to be—if they will ever be whole in ways they thought they would be. Torres—son of a religious zealot and arsonist, who told him once on a religious pilgrimage that we will “walk to salvation with all our friends”—offers to walk with all of his friends. If he could only rise from his wheelchair and work his legs he would, in fact, fly them out, and yet we're led to believe that the imagined walk may only include Wintric, his now decades old and only confidant.
In the end, this novel will haunt you. It will ring in your ears like the aftermath of firing a high powered rifle. Maybe it will be the hapless feeling of Torres bound to a wheel chair and trying to teach his three-year-old how to balance on one leg; or Dax yelling into his wife’s answering machine, “Safety, safety, safety” until his voice quits him; or Wintric, in the end, walking in the July 4th parade, thousands of people rising and applauding in appreciation, and yet not one of them, not one single person on that route of the parade seems to know him or take the steps to understand his singular experience in combat or in life—but you will and you will be walking in Wintric’s shoes, his horrifically mangled foot and all.