It seems a quirk of the genre that war novels very often take a long time to surface after the events they depict. Of the category’s compulsory reads, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (review here) wasn’t written until over a hundred years after the Battle of Gettysburg, sixteen years separated the end of World War II from the publication of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which was itself followed seven years later by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. More recent releases also support this trend; Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes’ much anticipated 2010 novel, is about events which took place in Vietnam in 1969. Perhaps this explains why the war on terror, which has run for thirteen years and looks set for at least thirteen more, has yet to produce a piece of seminal fiction. Most of what has been written about the period is memoir or “secret history” of questionable provenance and accuracy, evidenced by the tawdry public dispute over exactly who killed Osama bin Laden. Perhaps writers of fiction need important periods of history and those who took part in them to have been unjustly forgotten, or that the collective memories societies hold of them require adjustment or additional contribution. That the war on terror obstinately refuses to join history may explain why it is that it has produced little fiction synonymous with it. A notable exception is not encouraging; John Updike’s Terrorist is regarded by several reviewers as one of the worst novels ever produced by a great author. J. Robert Lennon’s Castle (2009) is a tentative attempt to reconnoitre the genre, but lack of clarity over its purpose means it fails to quite fulfil its ambition.
Castle feels like it intends to be an Iraq novel in the same way as many read Taxi Driver to be a Vietnam film. However, Eric Loesche, our Iraq veteran and main character in Castle, is no Travis Bickle. He arrives to the town of his upbringing in upstate New York having bought a “fixer upper” of a house and some surrounding land. During the novel’s early stages, a series of unsubtle clues to his background are provided. He dwells on a Support The Troops car sticker, refuses to accompany an electrician into the house’s cellar with its stone walls and single bare light bulb, tosses a book featuring a passage of apparently harmless psychology theory across the room, eschews friendship and sometimes even conviviality. Allusions are made to his being removed from the military, and locals — workmen, bar staff — clearly know more about the circumstances than the reader.
We realize very soon that Loesche is not only renovating his house but also apparently cleansing his soul. Of what, however, is only hinted at. The resultant realization is that this novel is not only about what will happen but also what has already happened and how the two will clash. The challenge facing Lennon, then, is that Loesche’s “back story,” to borrow a modern cliché, must be sufficiently chartbusting to match the suspense created by the intrigues of the present. These include redaction of the house’s deeds to obscure the identity of a former owner, a nagging and vague shrieking sound Loesche begins to hear at night, an apparently portentous white furred deer, and the discovery of a stone structure in the land’s woods which, in gothic horror story style, is full of foreboding and dread. Some of this puts us in fairly routine (one in a particularly critical mood may say hackneyed) territory, but even so it works. To deviate from this and introduce Iraq relatively late in the novel is an attempt to provide gravitas which is not achieved and not necessary to achieve the sort of novel Castle ought to be, the type that GK Chesterton classified as a “good bad book.”
As may be inferred, Castle has a number of merits. Primary amongst them is the portrayal of Loesche and the vibrant rendering of his rather extreme personality. This is blended with an economical and impassive prose which Lennon chose, wisely, to deliver in the first person. Loesche is a man of few emotions, but of considerable self-awareness. Take these:
I am a highly organized and energetic person and accustomed to getting things accomplished quickly and thoroughly.
I am not deeply moved by beauty, and in fact may even be incapable of appreciating or even recognizing it.
I make my most important decisions according to the facts on the ground, and do not allow the past or some sentimental interpretation of it, to interfere with my current actions.
Much of what makes Loesche so compelling for the first third or so of this novel is the interaction between the reader’s awareness that he is keeping something from us and his unreliability. Indeed, he receives an accidental crack on the head about a third of the way through which raises the possibility of everything hence being an invention. An author who uses an unreliable narrator asks for extra trust; the difficulty in Castle is that the trust is taken too far. Loesche persists in making “discoveries” of things he cannot possibly have forgotten, including a building where he spent two childhood summers. And yet the reader is supposed to suspend credulity for long enough to think this passes muster, especially when Loesche’s reminiscences of childhood are provided in considerable detail. Much literature depends on the reader wilfully volunteering to suspend disbelief, but the author has to keep his side of the bargain too. Some of the finest literature ever penned makes supreme use of the unreliable narrator — Lolita, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Catcher In The Rye — but when it is employed without due care, one rather begins to mistrust J. Robert Lennon instead of Eric Loesche. And as the novel makes its way to a detention facility in Iraq, we seem to lose Loesche and are instead offered Lennon’s view of what he thinks it is that detention facilities say about what the book’s blurb monotonously calls “America’s recent foreign misadventures.” “Oh, just mention Iraq,” one can almost hear the publisher shout across the office. “It’s bound to sell!”
Our mission was a failure. We had discovered close to nothing about the enemy, except how to hurt him.
Where Lennon has the most to say he is the least impressive. This is exacerbated by clumsy detail; there are no 19-year-old female interrogators, there are no Chief Warrant Officers from the military intelligence branch being sent to help build detention facilities. There are no conceivable circumstances which would allow a war-zone interrogation to take place in someone’s office. And certainly no American serviceman could get a personally owned family heirloom firearm in full working order smuggled into a theatre of war. Or if they did, it would require explaining exactly how.
Overall, this novel is, for most of its relatively short length, an enjoyable journey which, alas, is not matched by its destination. It should have moderated the scale of its ambition and need not have headed for Iraq; what transpires to have taken place in Loesche’s childhood would be ample explanation for the state of mind so convincingly portrayed throughout the early chapters. It is fine that Lennon wants to talk about Iraq, even if what he does say is fairly insipid for such a grave and important topic, but he chose the wrong novel in which to do it. It also detracts from what is for most of the novel a very effective portrait of Loesche, but the shift of focus means that the novel ceases to be about him when he is our company for every word of it. This is doubly frustrating when an earlier Lennon novel, the brilliant Mailman, profoundly succeeded in creating a truly memorable comic grotesque and misanthrope in Albert Lippincott, who, if one were in a generous spirit, could be said to stand comparison with Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces. Mailman, though, knows what sort of novel it is and sticks to it.