Reviewed by Darrin Doyle
Artistic range is a quality that more and more current publishers seem to be avoiding. Some of today’s most influential and original authors like George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link – let’s face it – tend to employ the same mode from book to book. A reader knows pretty much what they’re going to get when they pick up a new work by one of these writers. This is not a criticism, and it’s not to say their books aren’t good, because they are, but diversity with regard to style, voice, and subject matter are not part of their modus operandi.
Happily, there are still authors (and publishers) willing to take risks and to stretch themselves artistically. Such is the case with John Warner’s Tough Day for the Army. These 15 stories show a remarkable breadth of form, voice, and style, reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s 40 Stories and 60 Stories collections. And yet those collections, as wonderful as they are, at times feel as if they are giving outlines for stories rather than full character arcs.
In Warner’s collection, the narratives have room to breathe, and therefore room to cultivate what I would call the human element – the costs and repercussions, the toll on the characters, and the relevance to our culture at large. In other words, these are not simply experiments in form. These pieces do what art, at its best, does best: they raise questions about the bigger issues of what it means to be alive in this specific place, in this specific historical moment.
This may sound grandiose, but in fact these stories are nowhere near pretentious. Instead, they’re hilarious, surreal, absurd, satirical, and smart. In “Nelson v. the Mormon Smile,” a motivationally challenged stoner executes a plan to win over the girlfriend of his Mormon coworker by giving her (and the other Mormons at the party) brownies laced with weed. “Corrections and Clarifications” takes the form of a small town newspaper’s corrections section, beginning with a straight-faced accounting of journalistic errors and developing into something deeper, darker, and more hilarious, revealing the “we” voice of the newspaper to be a cover for the petty grievances of a citizen trying to account for the mistakes and foibles of his own personal history.
“Not Schmitty” takes aim at an easy target – fraternity dudes – and becomes an unsettling comic story about groupthink, free will, regret, and the definition of success. The frat brothers decide to try waterboarding as a method of hazing, and when they accidentally push it too far (on their brother named Schmitty), he becomes something they did not expect: “We remove the towel from Schmitty’s face, and for a moment we worry that maybe we did it wrong, that we killed Schmitty, because his eyes are – how can we put this? – absent. They are open, but no one is present, like this is a life-sized Schmitty doll in front of us, eyes black and staring and lifeless, except we know Schmitty is not dead because his chest rises and falls.”
Schmitty has become a kind of zombie: soulless and single-minded, bent on revenge against his frat brothers. The story then leapfrogs through the ensuing years, the brothers graduating, getting jobs and spouses, having children, playing golf – settled but always uneasy, restlessly watching over their shoulders and wondering when and how Schmitty will strike. The story has allegorical possibilities (are the frat brothers any more “alive” than Schmitty as they go through the motions of what they’ve been taught equals “success”?), and yet any symbolic resonance comes from the reader’s interpretation and not from browbeating by the story itself.
The key to Warner’s satire is that it never reads as mocking or condescending to the subjects of his lampooning. It’s a fine line to walk, and Warner navigates it perfectly. The humor is never at the expense of the characters, but is instead underscored by empathy and affection, no matter how ridiculous the characters’ thoughts or situations.
Warner is clearly indebted to postmodernists like Barthelme, Coover, and Wallace. However, the accusation against these writers is often that they leave out the emotion in favor of linguistic fireworks or elaborate conceits. To Warner’s credit, he never lets the language or the concepts substitute for substance. Whether it is Jesus Christ playing hockey on the Saskoon Bear Trap hockey team (“Second Careers”), a writer writing about writing the perfectly marketable novel (“My Best Seller”), or the not-so-simple reminiscences about a middle-school crush (“A Love Story”), each story in Tough Day for the Army is original, surprising, and fully realized.