about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Veterans Crisis Hotline
A Review of Veterans Crisis Hotline
by Jon Chopan

Spencer Dew

In one of the pieces here, a man at a bar tells a story about a buddy of his, a guy who got his hands blown off in the war. He takes some relish in relaying this tale, going on about how this buddy of his, “he doesn’t even notice” that his hands are just bloody stumps. “He thinks he’s pulling the trigger on his weapon,” screaming, berserk.

The story is fake. The guy, for whatever reason, makes it up, tries to pass it off on the vet sitting next to him. The imagined violence leads to real violence, but the more unsettling element here is the man’s motivation—did he spin this elaborate lie out of jealousy, out of desire, out of fear, out of a restlessness, a sickness, an inexplicable and ever-irrational darkness? Those questions resonant throughout this collection, winner of the 2017 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, contrasting the experience of war—violence, meaninglessness, a disconcerting mesh of ordered and chaotic experience—with the experiences of return—to the strictures and excesses of civilian life.

Men here go from sucking NoDoz tablets to swallowing handfuls of random pills with alcohol, from reading the signs of ambush (“In those days children were used as timers, spaced out so that bombers could count the seconds between each vehicle, could detonate their devices with greater accuracy.”) to reading the twitch and tell of the stranger on the barstool next to them. At least in combat there are rules of engagement; how does one engage with the academic who, for some study on psychology, wants to ask questions about your dreams? And what are the rules for engagement in sex, or in the conversation that could follow such “a violent and sad kind of collision” between bodies?

On the one hand, the stories here are particular to the experience of those warriors returned, transformed, to a home that likewise is always altered for them. “War has gone and fucked you up,” one character is told: a stark, undeniable diagnoses, however fuzzy around the edges. On the other hand, the existential bludgeoning these men receive—their knowledge of lives wasted, of life’s pointlessness, its absurd cruelty—could (and surely will, by many readers) be read as hyperbolic instances of a universal. But that interpretation becomes yet another layer of violence, another means of erasing the trauma of veterans. Their stories are not ours—neither to tell, like that guy at the bar, nor to understand. This collection is strongest when it fosters that tension, treating memories of war not as narratives at all, just jumbles of sensations, images, individually indelible, yet enigmatic—not a tale about a buddy’s devotion to the task of slaughter but, rather, a kind of koan, a jarring puzzle of words that reveals how far we are from anything like understanding. Think, instead of fluent talk over a telephone line, what gets conveyed, instead, through those stretches of silence, the hot press of your ear against the receiver, the faint sound of breathing—or its absence—on the other end.

Official Jon Chopan Web Site
Official University of Massachusetts Press Web Site

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