“Do Not Stop”
by Salvatore Scibona
from the January 21, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

In June 2010, you may remember, The New Yorker announced their list of “20 Under 40,” an elite group of authors the magazine considered to be the most promising young authors writing. They ran a series of stories by each author selected. Some of these authors’ work has continued to garner acclaim in the nearly nine years since the list was published. Salvatore Scibona is not one we’ve heard about much since. His debut novel, The End, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, but since then, other than a few short stories, I don’t think he’s published much. His second novel, The Volunteer, is being published in March by Penguin Press.

“Do Not Step” is an excerpt from The Volunteers. Like many commenters here, I prefer when we get actual short stories, though I have quite liked excerpts in the past. Indeed, going back to that 2010 “20 Under 40” list, I absolutely loved Karen Russell’s “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” an excerpt from what would become her Pulitzer Prize finalist Swamplandia!, which I really disliked. Still, I loved the excerpt, think it stands great on its own, and revisit it from time to time. That’s the exception, though. More often these excerpts are a bit flimsy and do not satisfy, which makes sense because they are part of a larger project. With this excerpt, as you’ll see below, I felt like I read a full story but have no desire to read more.

This excerpt is about Vollie, a marine who, when the story starts, is drunk in Okinawa. It’s 1968, and he’s about to board a plane, but first he has to be able to walk the tarmac unassisted. He does so, and soon he’s landing in Vietnam. I quite like the first part of the section after he lands:

You’d see a guy was scared. They were all of them scared out of their minds even while stoned, but you’d see, what was it, the eyes too open, too reactive to movement or the glint of the sun on passing scooter windshields; eyes too certain they could see it coming, the moment, the fell turn; a crouchy way of moving around even when the guy had no gear to hump; and it all amounted to a greed to go on living, laced with the knowledge it was not to be. Like, I know I ain’t getting out of here. And then, a few weeks later, you’d hear that guy was dead.

There wasn’t any sense to make of this phenomenon. Unless God didn’t like you expecting too much and he punished you for it by giving you what you expected to get. And you might think, All right, then I’ll go ahead and expect to make it home. But that was just vanity. No available facts supported such a foolish assurance. Within a week of Vollie’s arrival in the country, he was picking shards of the head of a lance corporal off his shirt, a boy nearly his same age, and hair attached to the shards that smelled of smoke and Brylcreem.

You’d see a guy stop short three times while tying the same shoe, stop to look up at moonlight flicking off a rock while the river moved on it, stop and look, stop and look. And a month later that guy would be dead. The lesson was, anything you love so bad that everywhere you look you see how you’re going to lose it, that thing will be taken from you. Even your life.

Before long, though long enough he’s had time to create mantras and see them shattered, Vollie is engulfed in the horrific Battle of Khe Sanh, and Scibone truly does render it horrific. I’m not sure there’s much more to it, though.

To be honest, I wasn’t planning on reading this story. I wanted to sample it a bit to see if I should, but I found it quite compelling and just kept going. Also, at the end of it all, I felt like I’d read a whole story. I don’t need to read the book to get a sense of fulfillment. At the same time, I’d say that I’ve read enough. This wasn’t particularly unique — especially in the battle and motions of the convoy — though done well. The beginning feels a bit like the start of Apocalypse Now and a lot of what follows feels like the second half of Full Metal Jacket. I’m not particularly interested in reading the novel.

I am curious how you all felt. Please feel free to comment below.

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By |2019-01-14T13:45:56-04:00January 14th, 2019|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Salvatore Scibona|Tags: |14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. David January 14, 2019 at 2:01 pm

    Trevor, I’m skipping it because it’s an excerpt, but I also wondered if this was just going to be the same old same old story about the Vietnam war. Your comments at the end suggest to me that I might have that reaction were I to read it. I think I will use the time I would have spent reading this on reading one by Deborah Eisenberg from her Collected Storeis. It’s a safe bet that I won’t regret this decision.

  2. Trevor Berrett January 14, 2019 at 5:23 pm

    I don’t blame you at all, David! Maybe someone here will find something that makes you think you should check it out, but even if that happens you’re definitely making the right choice to go with Eisenberg! Let me know which you’re reading and I may join you as I’m looking for a story to read later after the kiddos go to bed.

  3. Larry Bone January 14, 2019 at 7:48 pm

    I can definitely appreciate David’s point of view. The excerpt is kind of “in your face” straight pared down language probably a more masculine viewpoint and cinematic more than thoughtful. It either seems very real or a little too Hollywood flashy either way the reality of what it was occurred almost 50 years ago. Sometimes it can relate to. I got out of going to Vietnam by getting into the Coast Guard Reserve and in junior college, I talked with an Italian who returned from and observed a quiet very solid seeming emotional shutoff when he talked about friends almost in the boiled down descriptive manner of this excerpt. It is a lot to confront just in the excerpt. So I can appreciate anyone taking a pass on reading it. I always feel guilty so I feel I ought to read it and will.

  4. Larry Bone January 14, 2019 at 9:49 pm

    Apologies for unfinished quality of comment. . . . flashy. Either way . . .what happened occurred. Sometimes one can relate to aspects of the story . . . talked with a 2nd generation Italian-American guy who recently returned from serving in the military in Vietnam. . .And I observed . . .

    I think a reader can feel the need to observe what is going in short stories unless such observation becomes meaningless for them or it is way too uncomfortable to the point where nothing worthwhile can be gained from reading such a short story. What is the reader looking to gain from investing in the story he or she decides to read? Whatever the answer is will lead the reader to writing he or she can relate to or care about.

  5. william January 17, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    I enjoyed this story. It has the propulsive forward movement you’d expect from its title. Good writing. Also some hallucinatory passages.

    Yes I realized it was an excerpt. In this case perhaps I’ll read the novel when it comes out.

    Regarding Viet Nam novels — if you haven’t read “Go9ng After Cacciato” by Tim O’Brien (“The Things they Carried”) do so. The best war novel I’ve ever read. Even though (because?) it depicts no battle scenes.

  6. Larry Bone January 17, 2019 at 11:10 pm

    “Do Not Stop” seems much better than what most readers would expect if they are not too easily offended.

    What I most appreciate in this story is what William mentioned: how the prose is thought or physical action tumbling forward like the title unhampered by overthinking or too much consideration.

    The narrator’s consciousness fluidly pivots from moments outside a bar back inside the bar in Okinawa spinning to the side in a chair to the inside of a plane landing in Vietnam.

    This particular segment of Scibona’s forthcoming novel unfolds in seemingly perfect use of 2nd person singular you. Reader is the you most directly addressed by you the narrator, who is the opposite you of the two yous the story encompasses if the reader is drawn in rather than pushed away.

    But in a good short story, the voice can be your best buddy telling you things.  He or she tells you stuff that explains, instructs or makes everything seem as wantonly destructive and unfathomable as it actually is or only appears to be.

    Salvatore reminds me of Joan Didion.  Like Didion at her best, he describes dark intense emotional turmoil inside the human mind in reaction to particular events that most readers (male or female) would rather not look at or would wish they never have to experience.

    At lot of GI writing about the Vietnam maybe seems too familiar.  But really good writing often involves an indelible particularization of an individual’s experience, passed along to someone else he or she has never met.  Such as in the sentence, “Two minutes stopped on a mountain road was plenty enough for a convoy to get sighted and blown to hell from incoming.”  Such precision word choices.  None wasted.

    People can tolerate undesirable events accompanied by horrified emotional states in glossy international films or horror or science fiction or heightened reality series television.  But maybe not so much in a somewhat confessional short story where a few of the women are referred to only as “the girl”.

    Maybe there is too much writing on Vietnam so anything a little different still seems too much the same.  But the writing style here would skillfully illuminate almost anything Salvatore might choose to write about.

  7. William January 18, 2019 at 11:29 am

    Larry —

    Nice insights. I particularly like the phrase ” indelible particularization of an individual’s experience”. It says what I think makes this story more than just another VN story. It also epitomizes what all writers strive for, no matter what they are writing about.

  8. William January 18, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    I’m going to try to sneak this bootleg post past Trevor. I bought the latest issue of Tin House. Four observations.

    1 Many good stories.

    2 No author names I recognized.

    3 Some stories as good as NYer stories, or better.

    4 Almost all good stories had a “foreign” component. People drawing on their ethnic backgrounds.

  9. Reader January 20, 2019 at 1:29 am

    The story is well written, structurally and on a sentence-by-sentence basis. As noted by William and Larry, the prose is sharp and well rendered, making the read smooth and engaging and generally pleasant, even if not astounding. All the same, I’m not a huge fan of the story. I suppose my gripe is that it’s all been done before, and arguably better. Vietnam, the jargon and lingo, the inanity of the war, the conviction-less yet obliged twenty-ish grunt, the numbing, almost aloof violence, the quasi-hallucinogenic, late-60s atmosphere. This is the territory of the Tim O’Briens and Thom Joneses of the world, the stuff of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (as noted above). And where O’Brien and Jones are writing about such things from their own experiences, Scibona isn’t, and to my mind it shows. The others’ works contain what seems to me to be a sincerity and moral urgency that I found to be lacking in this piece. In that way, it comes across like a very polished and stylized imitation of older, truly moving material that we’re all already familiar with. If this story offered something novel in the way of perspective/analysis/insight, I think I’d be more forgiving, yet all of the emotional and thematic undercurrents are all well worn. This impression struck me so strongly as I made my way through the piece that I was actively waiting for some unexpected twist or take and felt disappointed when no such innovation came. Despite the competent crafting, it somehow rang hollow.

  10. Larry Bone January 21, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    Reader reveals a credible insight in pointing out how “Do Not Stop” lacks a sincerity and moral urgency. But that might be because Scibona writes of Vietnam as more of an existential situation. Existential thinking focuses on life as consisting of totally unrelated inexplicable occurences devoid of any emotion, thought or intellect. Sincerity and a moral urgency are qualities a writer can bring to an existential situation. Also, one of the disadvantages of a short story excerpt from a novel is the lack of an overall perspective or overall insight that sometimes appears elsewhere in the novel or at its end. Scibona’s novel is titled “The Volunteer” which possibly suggests some sort of perspective unseen in the short story excerpt. There is something inexplicable about the violence people of unsimilar cultural, religious, political or even genderal differences commit against one another rather than be able to live peaceably together. The simple answer is that one feared that the other would get more and that he or she would get very little or become slave to the other. Gandhi, near the end of his life, despaired that the British split India in half, its other half being Pakistan. It’s estimated that over 1 million people died as a result of the 1947 Partition. This horrific propensity in peoplekind is difficult to explain or gain any sort of meaningful prospective upon regardless of being taken up in a poem, short story or novel.

  11. mehbe January 24, 2019 at 8:36 am

    I generally liked the energy and flow of the writing, but at times it got a bit clogged up. For example, the little meditation on “It don’t mean nothing” seemed somehow too extended and, in a way, weirdly didactic. Only when I read the author interview did I realize that was because he was setting up stuff that happens much later in his novel. It shows, although I didn’t know why when I was reading it.

    The description of mechanical and technological aspects of the warfare as perceived by the narrator was very well done, I thought. Other things felt not so well integrated, like the horrible body on the stake image, which seemed fairly gratuitous. I got the idea the author knew of such a thing in real life, and wanted it in the story, but didn’t really know how to get it there other than just dropping it in. I also didn’t really buy the imagined playing of Schumann on a makeshift silent piano keyboard, from some young guy off the pig farm whose father is apparently is illiterate (if I interpreted his making of a mark instead of a signature on the card). That is likely explained in the novel, somehow, but it didn’t work for me here, and didn’t seem to have any reason for being in the story.

  12. Ken January 27, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    The comments by “Reader” pretty much echo my thoughts here. What is interesting to me, though, is that the story made me think about the two readings of a story–while reading it and then while thinking about it. I was 100% with this story while actually/actively reading it for all the reasons noted above but when thinking about it and reading the comments above I become less impressed as the story does clearly resemble many other stories and films and even while reading this I had that sense of its familiarity in mind. I looked up what I’d written about Scibona’s 2010 entry and had noticed that I didn’t like it at all so I would say that he seems to be getting better–more artful at least–as a writer, at least in my opinion.

  13. Madwomanintheattic February 19, 2019 at 10:59 pm

    Minority opinion:Brilliant, compelling writing. Painful reading. For me there was the compelling revelation of Vollie’s body’s actions before his mind knew what was happening. Given Trevor’s example above of excerpt possibly surpassing finished work ( I hated Swamplandia). I wonder about ‘rules’ for what we will or will not read. And can there be too many stories about Viet Nam? Or the Holocaust? Or Christmas?

  14. David February 19, 2019 at 11:14 pm

    And can there be too many stories about Viet Nam? Or the Holocaust? Or Christmas?”

    Nope, there can’t.
    .
    I sometimes think the true test of an artist is if they can say something new about a subject we think we have already heard everything about. A conventional take on a new idea can seem more impressive than it actually is, but finding a new way to approach the familiar is the mark of greatness.

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