Executive Director Brandon Willitts reviews Phil Klay’s short story, “Redeployment,” and draws a connection between the story and his own homecoming.
Phil Klay’s short story “Redeployment,” which is featured in both Fire and Forget and Granta, as well as in his forthcoming collection Redeployment, begins with one of the finest first lines I have ever read: “We shot dogs.” This line is like a jab to the face, putting the reader on notice that whatever happens next, his or her complete and undivided attention will be required.
As far as war stories go, it’s on par with the best. “Redeployment” skillfully examines the complexities of military service by describing organized violence and war without glorifying either. At the same time, the story balances the emotions of a returned service member – anger, confusion, and heartbreak – without leaning on oversimplification or cliché.
Klay’s prose is clear and concise, giving the story a very measured pace. And the most honest, human moments come not through Klay’s descriptions of the chaos of battle, but instead through the descriptions of those quiet moments of domestic life.
At times, we come to better understand war and it’s aftereffects through the many unspoken words that stand between a husband and wife; other times, it comes through the narrator’s use of understatement:
And that was my homecoming. It was fine, I guess. Getting back feels like your first breath after nearly drowning. Even if it hurts, it’s good.
Those few sentences are all rather subtle phrases, but they become the entry into this marine’s thoughts and emotions. Because he has just returned from his deployment, he hasn’t had the necessary time to process his wartime experience. These lines are as honest as he can be at the time, and that’s what makes them so uncomfortable. And the analogy he draws between drowning and his deployment becomes telling of the difficulty of turning ‘it off’ once he’s back stateside.
In early 2013, I was sitting in an audience, where I was listening to a panel of veteran authors discuss war writing. When it came time for the questions and answers segment, an audience member asked the panel why there weren’t more battle scenes in their works. As soon as the question was asked, every veteran in the room looked at one another and just sort of shrugged. I can’t remember how the panel responded, because honestly I didn’t listen for their response. I didn’t have to – I already knew why.
When people ask me about the war, I have two options, two stories to tell: I can tell a story about the missions where we captured terrorists in Afghanistan, or I can tell a story about the night I sat alone on the curb of Hickam Air Force Base after seven months in the Middle East with no one to pick me up. I don’t think too often about those missions in Afghanistan. But I think nearly every day about that night I came home.
And maybe it’s just me, but stories like “Redeployment” are the types of stories I need to read now. They are the stories that have helped me through the confusion and frustration of sitting on that curb. They are the types of stories I want to read, the types of stories I want to tell. It’s stories like this, and authors like Phil Klay, that have allowed me to better understand and process the “unquiet memories” of my life after I came home.
Listen to Phil Klay talk about his forthcoming collection, Redeployment, published by Penguin Press.