“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+00:00January 14th, 2019|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Salvatore Scibona|Tags: |8 Comments

8 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.

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