I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $24
About a year ago, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani asked, “Why has there been no big, symphonic Iraq or Afghanistan novel?” So far the fiction from these wars has had a “chamber music quality,” offering “keyhole views” into the wider conflict. This was not a criticism, but simply an observation of approach and, indeed, all the fiction I have read from the wars—Green on Blue by Elliott Ackermann, Redeployment by Phil Klay, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers—was written in the first person, containing a relatively small cast of characters.
U.S. Air Force officer Jesse Goolsby’s debut novel, I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, is the first novel to answer Kakutani’s call-to-arms. At only three hundred pages, I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (if there is a recent publishing trend I hope dies an early death, it’s the self-consciously long book title) is not the sort of book that would normally be described as “symphonic,” a word usually reserved for War & Peace-like doorstoppers, books whole forests are felled in order to publish. But Walk with My Friends, through Goolsby’s narrative economy, has somehow distilled the mana from a novel twice its length.
The novel initially follows three Army soldiers: Big Dax from New Jersey; Armando Torres, a Mormon raised in Colorado; and young Wintric Ellis from Chester, California, a lumber town four hours north of San Francisco. The trio is deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, while Iraq was still the more violent country. There are no raging firefights, no frantic calls for artillery or air support. They pass out prosthetic limbs. They discuss baseball. But ultimately they’re forced into horrible action at a traffic checkpoint, an event the three contend with for the rest of their lives.
But Goolsby’s primary interest is not the conflict itself, but the soldiers’ lives at home. Of the three hundred pages, no more than seventy are actually set in Afghanistan. This is not a war novel in the sense of All Quiet on the Western Front or James Salter’s The Hunters, but of The Sun Also Rises. The war is hardly present, but its shadow is everywhere.
The novel takes on the perspective of an increasing number of characters, from a girlfriend, to a “Jody” (military slang for civilians who steal the girlfriend of soldiers stationed abroad), to a daughter, and in one short, strange section an unknown child in a public pool. At times, particularly in this last instance, this outward rippling can seem disjointed and confusing, but the wide lens helps reveal the war’s effects on not just the veterans, but their loved ones who must share the burden.
Goolsby can write astonishingly strong scenes, and when he strings these scenes together, often years between them, an interesting friction occurs, where the reader is left to figure out what has happened. This narrative fracturing is often effective, mirroring the chaos of the characters’ states of mind, but at times it becomes unsatisfying dramatically. About halfway through the novel, while he’s away on business, Big Dax receives a phone call from his new wife. She tells them strange men are at the door, looking to settle a debt with her younger brother. She updates Dax over the phone. They’ve broken in. There’s fighting downstairs. They’re coming up the stairs. Big Dax instructs her to get his pistol from the safe and tell them she’ll shoot, to protect herself and their daughter. Then the line goes dead. Like the reader, Dax doesn’t know what’s happened in his home. Is his wife dead? His daughter? His brother-in-law? What happened?
We never find out. The scene ends, and the next scene with Dax does not come until near end of the novel, over a hundred pages later. Because we see Dax and his wife from a stranger’s point of view, we learn that they survived, but nothing else. They have moved to a new state, but Goolsby never addresses what happened or even if Dax’s brother-in-law or child are still alive. If there is a point to this withholding, I can’t see it.
But even as the structure of the novel slid toward incoherence, I was still deeply invested in the characters and their fates. Despite Goolsby’s clear and generous affection for them, he is uncompromising in their treatment, and much of what transpires is punishingly bleak. I kept waiting for some lightness, for some sort of redemption, but Goolsby denies me (and his characters) any assuagement. He knows that for many people, maybe most people, certain horrors will stick with them the rest of their lives. There will be times when they have the upper hand, and there will be times when the memories do, but ultimately time does not always heal: “It dawned on him that his time in Afghanistan was nearly twenty years past. Something about the number twenty jarred him: twenty years of waking up, living, sleeping, repeat and repeat… Where’s the turn? The bottom? The point where things start getting and always get better? Twenty years later and what’s new?”
This is Goolsby’s significant achievement: tracing the lines of trauma, from war and elsewhere. In order to do this, Goolsby covers decades in time and inhabits a half dozen characters, but what it lacks in focus, it more than makes up for in scope. Not only is Walk with My Friends one of the best works of literature to come from these wars, it is, so far, the only one of its kind.