Almost 20 years ago, long before he published any novels or won the Stranger Genius Award for Literature, Matt Briggs fought in the first Gulf War. "Fought" is probably too strong a word—Wikipedia notes, in curt, Briggsian language, "After high school, Briggs joined the U.S. Army Reserves and his unit was deployed to the Gulf War. Briggs served as a laboratory technician in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia"—but the experience must have left some kind of an impression on him. His new novel, The Strong Man, is about a young man named Ben Wallace who is called up from the Army Reserves to go fight in the first Gulf War. Fight, of course, is too strong a word—instead, Wallace battles boredom, gets involved in a shady smuggling ring, and repeatedly tries to call his pregnant girlfriend only to be rebuffed again and again by the young woman's mother.
Wallace, a weight lifter, is the kind of passive protagonist who would bore an audience in the hands of a less-assured writer. The series of anecdotes that make up the bulk of The Strong Man don't so much happen because of Wallace as happen to him; in fact, the only real surprises come in his occasional bizarre bursts of bad temper and the rare slap of a gorgeous turn of phrase, as when he reflects on how weight rooms "smelled of rubber mats and the ferric tang of plates."
Fittingly for a story about Operations Desert Shield and Storm, it's a comic war novel without the war, Waiting for Godot–style. Even though his reservist and medic statuses practically ensure that Wallace will never see the front line, he desperately wants to prove himself in combat. He thinks about war all the time, how his grandfather said World War II "was the best thing that was ever forced on him, because it was the worst thing," and how his father fled to Canada to avoid Vietnam. The test of war, of action, he believes, will forge his mind in the way he has shaped his own body and make him a worthy father for his unborn child, if his girlfriend doesn't abort the fetus before the un-war is over.
Like Catch-22, The Strong Man looks at the army and sees a laughable sort of institutional insanity, a stew of jargon and bureaucracy and young men wrestling with order, chaos, and mortality. Unlike Joseph Heller's language, which sings and leaps forward and explores weird avenues at a moment's notice like the world's longest Yiddish joke, Briggs's is full of the terseness and the staccato sentences of Raymond Carver. The difference between Heller and Briggs is in the language, and that difference bespeaks a larger rift between the two.
There's an emptiness in Wallace's world. Consider this passage, where he visits an empty drive-in movie theater on the way to Fort Lewis:
I parked in the middle of Midway and looked up at the white movie screen. It was too light now for it to get any use, with Highway 99 and I-5 right next to it, but there was still something pleasant about the vast, blank screen. I had to leave all of this.
Is he lamenting leaving the Pacific Northwest or leaving the vast, blank emptiness before him? And would he be comforted if he somehow understood that he was about to go to one of the vastest, blankest places on earth?
Occasionally, Briggs's sparseness works against him. Much of the dialogue in The Strong Man thuds with the special kind of rhythmless clunk that only "realistic" dialogue in literary fiction has. Early in the book, Wallace's girlfriend lectures him about responsibility:
We are too young to have a conversation about this. Realize you are talking about something that will last until we are almost forty... You are going to—fuck, you are at a war... I don't want to have to do something right now for the next eighteen years of my life. I'm too young to have to make a choice like this.
While repetition is an important weapon in Briggs's arsenal (it's one of the most effective ways to suggest boredom), at times it can get downright silly, like a lame children's book: "I found my cot. It was a good cot. The cot was very comfortable. After the cot I had in Eskan Village, this cot was luxurious."
But when Briggs is working at maximum power, as he is for much of The Strong Man, that abruptness and sparseness make the tragedy into something hilarious. Here, Wallace is telling his boss he's about to go to Saudi Arabia with the army:
"I've been activated."
"Someone's always pressing your buttons," she said.
"They called me up."
"You've heard the word," she said, and then she stopped smiling. "What are you talking about?"
It's a minor comic misunderstanding, but sometimes a misunderstanding can be more meaningful than the intended message. When it comes to war, does anyone really know what they're talking about?