I want to tell you about a couple books I read. Every once in a while you find a novel or two that’s hard to forget.
Roger Keen’s Literary Stalker is written about writers for writers, but if you’re not masochistic enough to consider yourself a writer don’t let that put you off: it’s a tremendously fun read for anyone. Throughout the book, Keen aptly skewers both the act of writing and the business of writing so accurately that I found myself simultaneously snickering aloud and squirming in my chair whilst reading it, which works perfectly for something one might call a metafiction thriller.
The main character, Nick Chatterton, is a gay man trying to break into the novel-writing business after having had several horror short stories published. I only mention that Nick’s gay because his lifestyle takes up a not-insignificant part of the novel, and some of the graphic detail had me dreading what might happen next. During his career, Nick has made some enemies/frenemies, and as he writes this new novel after the style of the Vincent Price revenge movie Theatre of Blood, he blurs the line between his protagonist’s murderous actions and his own. Everything leads up to Nick facing his imagined (or not-so-imagined) nemesis, a Neil Gaiman-like author with massive popularity, and things explode from there.
Keen (and I must say this) has a keen eye for the passive-aggressive, transactional nature of social media, showcasing both its absurdity and how seriously we take it. “If you don’t click Like on my post, I won’t Retweet your book sale link,” etc. Not only that, but he delves deep into the psyche of a stalker’s twisted personality, with the jealousies, fantasies, and delusions that come with it.
Across the board, Literary Stalker does what it sets out to do, and does it extremely well. I can’t say that about a lot of recently-written fiction, so check this one out.
Samuel Finlay’s Breakfast with the Dirt Cult is a profoundly affecting novel about the war in Afghanistan, and what the conflict does not just to protagonist Tom Walton, but everyone in his orbit. I know nothing about the writer myself, but the text makes one imagine that it’s a semi-autobiographical piece, a wrenching memoir of a young man’s time in the U.S. Army.
Tom Walton is an intellectual kind of soldier, as comfortable with Aristophanes as he is with a battle rifle, and much of the action takes place inside of his head. His musings on civilization, politics, culture, and intimate relationships get extremely raw at times, and much of it is inarguable, even if it devolves into occasional ranting. We get to know Tom inside and out, no-holds-barred, and in learning so much about him we can’t help but become him in both major events and minor.
I didn’t serve in the military and can’t speak firsthand to its accuracy. Nevertheless, his descriptions, characters, and use of jargon all ring true from my time working with veterans. The futility, for example, of climbing a mountain in the dead of winter to look for a terrorist who’s already fled, and the often arbitrary and capricious rules governing personal/professional conduct are starkly drawn, and make one wonder what exactly we’re trying to accomplish with our presence in Afghanistan.
Long stretches of the text are absolutely hilarious. The conversations are exactly how men talk, particularly men put under enormous pressure and in close quarters for extended periods of time.
If I had a criticism, it’s that the parts of the novel where Tom is no longer in the field dragged a little; the story structure needed that tent peg of danger to maintain its momentum. Nevertheless, Tom’s trials and agonies leap off the page and throttle you, keeping you gasping for breath with each turn of the page.
If you read nothing else about the war in Afghanistan, this is the book you need.