These Heroic, Happy Dead is an excellent short story collection by Luke Mogelson. Mogelson covered Afghanistan as a freelancer which gives his stories that experiential authenticity that is common in the best writing about war. Of course, calling The Heroic, Happy Dead military or war fiction is misleading. These are stories about humanity and what we do to it in the service of war.
Because it is a short story anthology, of course people compare it to Tim O’Brien’s magical The Things They Carried. That is unfair to both authors. O’Brien is a more expansive writer than Mogelson and his prose is far more direct. The power of O’Brien’s writing comes from his imagery and the poetry of his language. O’Brien is direct, he explains what he is thinking, we know his point of view. Questions raised in one O’Brien story are answered in another.
Mogelson is elliptical, abstruse, anything but direct. He leaves much unknown. Questions raised in one of his stories elicit more questions in another. Yes, you recognize a character from another story, but you still don’t know much more about him. You read one of Mogelson’s stories and ask what is the point, what is he trying to tell us. But, and this is important, if we are to believe Tim O’Brien, and I think we should; that is the essence of a true war story. O’Brien wrote one of his most powerful stories about the idea of a true war story. According to him a true war story is never moral, there are no great truths revealed. He wrote you can tell a true war story by the questions it elicits and whether the answer matter. True war stories never seem to end and often don’t have a point, at least not one you get right away. Most of all, he said that a true war story is not a war story, it is a love story.
I set great store in Tim O’Brien’s judgment. He is one of my favorite writers and The Things They Carried is a book I have read dozens of times. I think Tim O’Brien would say that Mogelson writes true war stories. With Mogelson there are no answers and all that pain, sorrow, grief and death remain a mystery, they make you ask more questions, unanswered questions. We like to finish a book knowing all the answers, the loose ends tied up and the snarls unraveled. Chaos, uncertainty, and a bevy of unanswered questions make us feel the author didn’t do his job. Except when his job is to tell a true war story.
Mogelson’s stories are flawed, though, in the absence of women. There are more women in the military than ever before and many more in combat zones, but they are essentially invisible in the stories. There is one sympathetic female character. Two if you count the woman killed in a restaurant who appears more as a memory than a character. This is a story about men in war.
Nonetheless, I loved These Heroic, Happy Dead. I encourage others to read it because it is a love story. Not one love story, many love stories about the men who volunteered to barter their souls, minds and bodies in the service of war. There are many motives for enlisting, but people do not enlist to do evil. Yet war, no matter how we separate ourselves and sanitize it, remains brutal, grotesque and evil. Mogelson asks us to love these soldiers who are scarred and broken by what we ask them to do. You won’t find answers in These Heroic, Happy Dead but you will find questions, questions we need to be asking loudly and often.
I received an ARC of These Heroic, Happy Dead in a giveaway drawing on LibraryThing.
- These Heroic, Happy Dead at Random House