Breakfast with the Dirt CultRed Dirt Syndicate, 2012, 318 pp., $11.99
Near the end of his Gulf War memoir, Jarhead, Anthony Swofford notes that “Every war is the same.” A literary corollary might be: Every war novel is essentially the same. The coins of the realm in war lit are a handful of scenes specific to the genre: A scene where the protagonist confronts war dead for the first time and is irrevocably changed; a scene where the soldiers are shown between firefights being stupendously and—because they are young men—dangerously bored, or drunk and whoring, or stuck on some senseless detail by a sadistic non-commissioned officer; a combat scene in which a close friend in the unit dies; and a scene of returning home either victorious and disillusioned or defeated and disillusioned. These scenes exist throughout a canon of war lit that stretches back to The Iliad and clatters forward through The Naked and the Dead and Born on the Fourth of July. Samuel Finlay’s memoir in the form of a novel, Breakfast with the Dirt Cult, seeks to join the canon.
Finlay served as an infantryman in what appears in the novel to be the 10th Mountain Division, the U.S. Army’s global political-military Band-Aid. His protagonist, Tom Walton, served in Bosnia as a private and is promoted to sergeant just as the unit is deploying to Afghanistan in the early days of that war. Walton travels to Montreal on a pre-deployment leave and meets a stripper with whom he carries on an epistolary relationship during his deployment, and with whom he hopes to engage more personally, so to speak, upon his return. As the plot goes, there isn’t much else except Walton’s wounding and return. I shall resist spoiling the novel’s ending for you by revealing whether (or not) Sergeant Tom and Amy the Canadian stripper seal the deal and live to a ripe old age in the suburbs of Toronto.
Within the war lit genre reside archetypal story lines, for which the scenes enumerated above count as fleshings out. Often the books are, at their core, coming-of-age stories. This is certainly true for Breakfast with the Dirt Cult. Here, Sergeant Walton faces his mortality, is challenged to lead in combat men only a year or two younger than he is, wants love, needs reassurance, kills the enemy, and in the process becomes a man. Most war stories function also as journey stories: We see the soldier leaving home, going to war, and returning home as a new man. Elements of other archetypal tales run through the genre and through Finlay’s book as well: The hooker with a heart of gold (only in this case she’s a stripper and if it is gold it might be six-karat unless it’s only plated); the disillusionment of youthful idealism; the coming to terms with life at home in the aftermath of war; and so on. There is even an echo of the famous “Lofty Sky” scene from War and Peace for Sergeant Walton.
Similarly, certain themes echo through the genre: the dehumanization of the soldier; loneliness; the brotherhood of the warrior; death; misogyny; and crazy boredom. Finlay rings the bell on most of these. But it’s probably impossible to write in this genre and not hit them. Soldiers need to be convinced that it’s okay to kill the enemy. We do that by dehumanizing them: We called the Germans in World War I “the Hun” or “the Boche.” We called the Japanese in World War II “Nips.” We called the Vietnamese “dinks” or “slopes.” In Iraq and Afghanistan pretty much everyone not on our team was called “Haji” or worse. As to the brotherhood of the warrior, that band of brothers, in combat we revert to a state of nature. We bond with each other through ritual and symbol—everything from pulling watch while someone else (you will refer to him as your brother at some point) sleeps to pinning on the Combat Infantryman Badge—and this bond will become unbreakable. As for misogyny: Without the civilizing influence of women, in a very short period of time we come to resemble something from the early Cenozoic Era. We resent this fact and rather improbably, but invariably, blame women for it.
As a fictionalized memoir, Finlay’s effort also falls in with earlier works: Joseph Heller, Ford Madox Ford, James Jones, and Siegfried Sassoon all wrote fictionalized accounts of their war experiences. I think they did so for a couple of reasons. They may have felt that they could not capture the truth of the war experience simply by writing true facts. War is devilishly hard to capture on the page; a scene in The Iliad has the narrator complain, “How can I tell it all, it would take a god to tell this tale.”
Heller, Ford, Jones, Sassoon, and so many others also wrote novels because the war memoir genre really didn’t exist in the first half of the 20th century—at least not for draftee junior officers and enlisted men. Famous men wrote mémoires, and some of them had experienced combat. But men like Ford and Sassoon were writers, and writers wrote novels or poems. Today, of course, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a memoirist. Everyone and his dog seems to think his personal story worthy of shelf space and that the rest of us all want to revel in the full disclosure of his failures as a human being. (Full disclosure: I published a memoir—Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years—in 2014 about my many failures as a soldier and Foreign Service Officer.)
Unable to find a trade publisher, Finlay published the book himself. This fact speaks less to the quality of the book than to a weariness among publishers (and perhaps, in their eyes, readers) toward traditional war lit. In the past couple of years, the serious war memoirs and novels written by combat veterans that have been bought by major publishing houses are easily counted on one hand: Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue, Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment, Kayla Williams’s memoir Plenty of Time When We Get Home, and maybe a couple of others. Importantly, none of these publishing successes (as far as the authors go, not necessarily the publishers) fit into the traditional war lit mold. Turner’s memoir is a meditation written by this generation’s leading-light war poet. Ackerman’s novel is told from the point of view of an Afghan boy. Klay’s short story collection has more voices than Sybil Dorsett did. And Williams’s second memoir is the story of her postwar life with her badly injured veteran spouse. There have, of course, been lots of pulpy memoirs published by major houses during these most recent wars—a majority of those were written “with” a professional writer and nearly always contain the words Navy SEAL, sniper, or some variant of “special operations” in the title—but these weren’t literary memoirs and those compose the subject at hand.
Finlay’s publishing history matters because Breakfast with the Dirt Cult would have benefited from an editor’s touch. The story occasionally wanders off to play chutes and ladders; our narrator’s focus sometimes wanders, too. We are reminded that Walton studied medieval history at some point and, somewhere near the middle of the book, the narration rambles for four or five pages of interiority on the differences between American and Afghan cultures. It is a walkabout replete with references to the self-castration of Western society, of society being populated by hucksters, and of paradise being always lost. I don’t disagree with Walton’s musings, but some of his digressions digress too much.
In Finlay’s world, or perhaps more properly Walton’s, officers may as well not exist. We inhabit the nether regions of the U.S. Army: the domain of privates, specialists, and junior sergeants of infantry—the “dirt cult” of his title. The close perspective becomes somewhat claustrophobic at times. The book might have benefited from a wider angled shot on occasion, if only to deepen the claustrophobia into an art form. Further, Finlay—or is it Walton?—seems at times to be trying a little too hard to show us just how smart, thoughtful, and well read he is. All of these things were fixable; but they were not fixed.
But Finlay flourishes, too. The voices in The Dirt Cult are authentic. I spent the early part of my career in cavalry, artillery, and infantry units, and can attest to the veracity of the language Finlay employs. It’s highly unpretty, yes, but it is actually toned down substantially because no one from outside the fraternity would believe just how many times in a sentence—in every sentence—soldiers can employ the word “fuck.” It is used as any number of classes of verb, as a noun, a proper noun, an adjective, and an adverb, an epithet, a metaphor, and so on.
Finlay also captures well relations between young enlisted soldiers—Joes in the vernacular—and sergeants, as well as within the hierarchy of sergeants. The Dirt Cult displays front and center the stupidity of life in the Army: the hurrying up and waiting; the endless, pointless, worthless trainings that must be completed and checked off and reported up the proverbial chain of command or some untold horror will befall the unit, ruining the commander’s chance for promotion. It shows “The Suck” of life in war: legs and lungs screaming while humping a ruck up a mountain as BOB, the big orange ball, bakes you and the ground you walk on; freezing at night; eating, for days on end, food that is so highly processed it will outlive cockroaches after the nuclear holocaust; and then shitting it out into a bag. We learn what it is to embrace “The Suck.” We feel the loneliness of deployment when one of the characters, Dominican Lou, quietly sings Happy Birthday to himself while he’s shivering in the dirt, wrapped up in his poncho liner.
Breakfast with the Dirt Cult is war lit, and war lit is genre fiction. While genre fiction gets a bad rap in MFA programs, it sells. It sells because people like to read detective stories and courtroom dramas, they like bodice-rippers, whodunnits, costume dramas, and yes, war lit. People like genre fiction because it allows them to visit worlds where there are wizards and dragons, or where they can live vicariously the lifestyles of the ultra-rich and beautiful, or even where they might actually meet soldiers and strippers. As part of the war-and-return genre, the book succeeds. There isn’t much new here, but that’s kind of the point. We read genre fiction as much for its predictability of structure, tone, and action as anything else. The settings change and so do the names, but a mystery is a mystery, a bodice-ripper is a bodice-ripper, and a war story is a war story. Breakfast with the Dirt Cult is not Her Privates We or Catch-22 or The Things They Carried. Those books all fit the genre but also, each in their own way, broke the mold. But if you seek an authentic, very much unvarnished voice telling a good story, even one we’ve been hearing since Homer created the genre 2,800 years ago, you may well find it here.