When Pop Culture Meets War
Two new novels make New Mexico the testing ground
Novelist Sarah Stark acutely remembers her first Iraq War veteran, a student who “was soft-spoken, articulate.” A quiet poet, Ruben Santos would later become a template for the main character in Stark’s new novel, Out There.
It started back in 2007 with Stark and her class discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude, the renowned novel by Gabriel García Márquez. Her then-student, Santos, like her protagonist Jefferson Long Soldier, found solace in the text during his multiple duties abroad.
Stark remembers, “[Santos] really just blew away any preconceived notions about veterans, what they would look and act like.” At the time, the teacher and author was reading about the waves of returning soldiers and had imagined them differently. There were “no visible surface signs of what happened to him,” she says. He, in part, led Stark to write the story of a veteran who comes back to his home in Santa Fe.
Out There is about no more and no less than the knotty act of re-entry by war veterans, former soldiers who must learn to manage their trauma in their civilian lives. Despite no scenes of battle in the novel, the presence of violence and its effects on Jefferson Long Soldier are palpable. The novel begins in the Albuquerque Sunport and its crowds of tourists, businesspeople and locals. Among them is Jefferson, showing off his peculiarity with a handstand performed by baggage claim. A bulky object is taped to his chest—a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“I hope [the book] is accessible to many types of readers, because I feel that as a people, it is important to look at these issues of veterans. We are not off the hook; we need to recognize this is a problem.”
After two years of working on Out There, Stark thought of her veteran student and tried to contact him. She discovered his obituary. He had taken his life a year after their class together. “It was devastating news,” she recalls. “I made the conscious decision to make this story be a re-imagining of [Santos’] life; about a soldier [who]—instead of keeping it in, appearing to be fine—lets it show that there is something wrong with him.” Jefferson’s odd conduct and extreme devotion to García Márquez’ words are his own mode of self-preservation.
Stark allows Jefferson’s thoughts to emerge on the page. Wounded by his experiences in Iraq, he tracks daily activities, his relationship with his grandma and cousin, and his therapy sessions with an unconventional shrink. Jefferson’s struggles lead to his decision to make a road trip to Mexico City to see the (then-living) author he so reveres: “He told himself he had to go find García Márquez to end the nightmares and the horrible daydreams and the feeling of empty solitude that followed him around. So that he might continue breathing in and out, so that he could taste his grandmother’s posole ...”
As veteran perspectives proliferate in literature and the news, Stark’s book stands out for its intimacy with the main character. At times—as when we see the quest for García Márquez from Jefferson’s reflective, lyrical perspective—it can be overwhelming, a bit difficult to follow the winding road and plot. But this kind of close proximity also illuminates the interior spaces of Jefferson’s mind.
The stories of individual veterans, Stark believes, are what “provide access for all the rest of us.”
In staying close to Jefferson’s experience, Stark trusts she avoided a “political” novel. “I hope [the book] is accessible to many types of readers, because I feel that as a people, it is important to look at these issues of veterans. We are not off the hook; we need to recognize this is a problem,” she says. And though Jefferson has lived to recall, frequently, the deaths of his comrades and his violent milieu, he comes to stand as a figure of deep hope. For those who fought, and those who have not, Jefferson remains a survivor, his persistence not a miracle, but an endeavor.
Stark reads from Out There at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) on Sunday, July 6, at 3pm. (Nora Hickey)
Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly
There’s something about being a teenager—and I can only speak for us boys—that demands you take risks, do stupid things, defy logic and gravity, thumb your nose at authority and seek out extremes. This can come in any number of forms from shoplifting to drag racing. For me it was skiing. And at the height of my daredevilism, I launched off a 40-foot cliff with nothing but a pair of skis strapped to my feet. I'd been working up to it for years, and then, suspended momentarily in the clear blue Sierra sky, I didn’t even have time to wonder if I would join the legions of adrenaline junkies who’d blown out knees or broken legs off this same notorious cliff. It was a nearly religious experience. And as soon as I picked up Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly, the new young adult novel by Conrad Wesselhoeft, I saw the same drive in Arlo Santiago. The 17-year-old protagonist is a world-renowned video gamer and ace dirt bike rider. But even as I read about his exploits, mostly the idealized feats typical of a YA novel hero, the nuanced moral issues at the heart of the novel began to rise to the surface: the role the military plays in our community and how the ends don’t always justify the means, even when fighting evil.
Arlo is a daredevil dirt bike rider in love with the terrain of his native New Mexico. He waxes poetic about its colors as he hurtles over its cliffs in his Yamaha 250. But that’s only a supporting plot line for the driving narrative: Arlo is literally the best in the world at Drone Pilot, a video game designed with technology hacked from the military’s own drone flight simulator programs. He plays with an obsessive regularity, vanquishing online competitors from around the world. But it’s more than a game for him; it’s a transcendental experience. “One day, you go past the point where your senses work in greased harmony,” Arlo explains. “You slip out of your skin. You free yourself from gravitational pull. You enter the Drone Zone. When I’m in the Drone Zone, I function better than I’m capable of. Brain chatter dies. Life shit fades. Something inside me lines up with something in the universe.”
If true intelligence is being able to synthesize opposing ideas and to live with uncertainty, then Arlo is one sharp cookie.
He’s so good at Drone Pilot that the military recruits him to fly for their elite drone pilot team based out of White Sands. It seems like the answer to his family’s problems, which are numerous: His mother was killed in a convenience store hold-up, and his jobless father is sinking under a mountain of remorse and debt as he struggles to get medical attention for Arlo’s sister, who has Huntington’s disease. The military recruiter promises to erase their debt and provide the costly medical attention his sister needs. Of course, Arlo can’t say no, but not before securing a promise that he will only fly recon, no executions.
While Wesselhoeft weaves a number of plots together, the main moral of the story here concerns the military’s community role, especially in New Mexico, and its questionable practices in defeating so-called “evil.” The depth with which Wesselhoeft probes this is a welcome surprise in the book. And Arlo’s drone piloting is the perfect vehicle to examine the sticky issue. When the moment arises after countless recon missions—when they have Caracal, the notorious terrorist, cornered—Arlo has to ask himself if he can pull the trigger and kill the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
“Fact is, I don’t have anything against him personally. So what if he’s an extremist, I’m an extremist. Colonel Kincaid says we need to prevent all those terroristic acts that he might do in the future. Not sure about that.”
If true intelligence is being able to synthesize opposing ideas and to live with uncertainty, then Arlo is one sharp cookie. But most importantly, his struggle with these complex ideas and big moral questions makes this a timely and truly readable book. (Ian Wolff)