Novels of war are of perpetual interest. The moral concern and earnestness at the heart of such stories can be told in a variety of ways. From the nightmare of front lines combat to the echo of remembered trauma, war stories capture the human animal in his most naked state. Matt Briggs’s novel, The Strong Man, is a tale of men (and a few women) on the edge of the battlefield in the First Gulf War, a war massive in scope yet bizarrely tangential, victorious but bathetic. Like Anthony Swofford’s memoir of this same strange war, Jarhead, The Strong Man presents the addled and addling movements of an American military trying to determine the shape of its own raison d’etre in a war that seems to always occur just over the horizon.
Briggs’s novel is suitably tight in its focus given the historical sprawl of his subject, treating the story from the perspective of PFC Ben Wallace, an Army Reserve medical lab technician, suddenly activated along with other “citizen/soldiers” of the Yakima branch of the reserve station, a group of malcontents that would make most soldiers request a unit transfer. In fact, this is exactly what Wallace tries to do, claiming a desire to see the front lines of combat instead of the urinalysis screening detail in a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia hospital. However, because of his great physical strength accomplished through a punishing weightlifting routine, Wallace’s efforts are quietly misdirected by Sergeant Mice, a war profiteer that traffics in health and comfort items from leather recliners to bacon. The tension with Mice as a small-time hood and Wallace’s desire to experience the “real” world of combat, informs much of the novel.
Briggs is brilliant in his moments that address the removal of the human element from modern warfare, the commonplace absurdities of set-piece battles. For instance, the following excerpt, treating Wallace’s idea of his role in combat, shows a resignation and haplessness that is the epitome of technocratic fatalism:
“My life was at risk in a geological way. If I died, I would die because I was in the wrong blast zone on the wrong tactical map at the wrong time. Nothing I did personally had anything to do with the enemy’s survival or death. I operated my machine—a urinalysis machine. My comrades operated their machines—a Bradley tank, an F-14, a B-52—and so this didn’t feel like an experience of war as much as shift work.”
Wallace, however, does eventually have the chance to see the war up close, or at least the remnants of it, but finds it too is sanitized and abstracted, removed from the hyperreality he has sought out, indicating that any experience of war is partial and largely mistranslated.
Briggs has made a great stride for independent writing with a novel that is strong in execution and socially relevant. He continues to develop as writer to watch and seek out.
Matt Briggs blog here
Buy THE STRONG MAN here