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)