We went through a number of howitzer liaisons before Levi. His predecessors, none of whose names I remember, were able to build artillery plans in support of our night raids. They were skilled enough to communicate these plans to the soldiers who would fire the howitzers. In fact, any one of them would’ve been perfectly fine as a liaison to a normal organization. But ours was not a normal organization. Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused we’d send them back and demand a replacement.
What Mackin – in his first published fiction – has done in four pages with war, postage stamps, and candy, is miraculous. Fortunately, it’s available online. Read it, I implore you, before (or instead of, if time is short) continuing here. Then sit with it for a few days. Then read it again. It’s that kind of story.
The story takes place at a military base in Afghanistan; the unnamed first person narrator’s voice is that same restrained, keeping-sane-in-an-unsane-place voice of much recent war fiction. He’s a member of Seal Team 6, and his mission for most of the story is to find two soldiers, referred to as Chin and No Chin on the basis of their photographs, who were kidnapped in an ambush.
If we’d been asked how long we’d go on searching, our answer would have been: as long as it takes. Think of the families back home. Baby Chin. Mother No Chin. But in truth there were limits, and we had methods for determining them. From the streaks of blood found in the drag marks, we ascertained wounds. From the wounds, we developed timelines. And we presented these timelines on a chart, which read from top to bottom, best case to worst. By the time that village lit up beside us, we were at the bottom of the chart. The next night, we started looking for graves
It’s one of those stories where every sentence, every clause, maybe even every word, relates to another part of the story, and as you read (the second, and third time) you see those interrelationships more and more.
Levi, the new howitzer liaison (I’m pretty vague on the precise function of this job, other than it involves calculations used in aiming artillery), is Dutch, but in the American military, and takes a brief leave to attend the birth of his son in Texas. This jumble, and the fact that no one tries to figure it out but just accepts it as one more bizarre thing, accentuates the atmosphere. It’s a crazy place, and thinking about it too much is crazy-making. Levi’s heritage also allows the inclusion of two essential elements of the story: packages from his Dutch mother come with Dutch postage stamps picturing Bruegel paintings, and contain Dutch candy, the Kattekoppen of the title.
Juxtaposition is the name of the game. The descriptive passages are necessarily short, but still use juxtaposition masterfully to include beauty and horror in one scene. For the narrator, even candy evokes death and destruction:
Kattekoppen were brown cat heads with bewildered faces. They made me think of a bombing attack I’d been involved in, in Helmand, during a previous deployment. We’d dropped a five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb with a delayed fuse on a group of men standing in a circle in a dusty field. The round hit at the center of the circle and buried itself, by design, before the fuse triggered the explosion. The blast killed the men instantly, crushing their hearts and bursting their lungs, then flung their bodies radially. The dead landed on their backs, and a wave of rock and dirt, loosed by the explosion, sailed over them. The dust, however, floated above. As we walked in from our covered positions, it descended slowly. By the time we reached the impact site, it had settled evenly on the dead, shrouding their open eyes and filling their open mouths. Those dusty faces, their uniform expressions of astonishment, were what I thought of when I saw Kattekoppen.
The Dutch stamps provide the opportunity to include more imagery. I’m impressed with how these elements are chosen and woven seamlessly into the story. I don’t usually put art in the body of literary posts, but because they play such a key role in the story, I’m including the three paintings referenced. First, there’s “Hunters in the Snow.”
Returning from our manhunts through the snowy mountains west of Logar, I felt the weariness of Bruegel’s hunters. Cresting the hill that overlooked our frozen outpost, I saw their village. And, within its fortified boundaries, I watched men go about their daily tasks as if unaware of any higher purpose.
The stamps on the package from Levi’s mother featured “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The detail chosen was Icarus drowning. What was not shown was how the world went on without him
The final painting mentioned is “The Triumph of Death” which I discovered last year when I read Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” last year. It’s not surprising that it appears here. What is somewhat surprising is that it is brought into the story, not by a stamp, but by the recollection of the narrator:
…I looked out the windshield at the war, which, stamp-wise, could’ve been a scene from Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”—one that, even without a skeleton playing the hurdy-gurdy, or a wagon full of skulls, or a burning shipwreck, or a dark iron bell, still raised the question of salvation.
I see a link between the paintings, relating to observation. First, there are the unobserved observers of “Hunters,” then the non-observant villagers of Icarus, and finally, there’s no one left to observe in “Triumph.”
I’ve only skimmed the surface here. The paintings alone have depths to plumb, and each scene, each character, each event, evokes rich impressions. Hyperbolas into infinity. Pink snow. An owl. I suspect I’ll be encountering this story again in one of the prize volumes.
Just when I thought I’d read the best thing I was going to read all week, maybe all year, I read Mackin’s Page-Turner interview. He tells a story of an experience, at the Pentagon, with a parade of wounded soldiers, that should be made into a film, and explores the “ironic detachment” he so effectively created for his narrator.
Like David Abrams, author of Fobbit, Mackin spent 20 years in the military. I’m glad we now get to hear from him; he’s got a lot to say, and a great way of saying it.
Addendum: This post was originally written in March 2013, after I’d read the story in TNY; I’m delighted to encounter it again in BASS 2014. Interesting: although the stories are, as always, arranged alphabetically by author, two stories about soldiers in recent US wars appear back-to-back.