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.