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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: Will Mackin's "Kattekoppen"

Each week I review the short fiction from the latest issue of The New Yorker. However, since the issue comes out on Monday, and I get it any time between Wednesday and Saturday, sometimes the reviews are a bit late...

Once again, this is the fiction from last week's New Yorker (see disclaimer above). Set in Logar, Afghanistan, present day, "Kattekoppen" is a brief vignette about a U.S. Army artillery detachment engaged deep in the hills of a hostile country. Partly focusing on a Dutch (though enlisted in the U.S. Army) howitzer liaison named Levi, and partly focusing on the main narrator, of whom we don't really learn much. The story is partly about the mundane things that occupy the mind during an excursion thousands of miles from home, where death and violence are always around the corner, and partly about how men in combat must necessarily focus on those things so they do not focus on the reality that their own lives are on the line every minute of every day. The main action in the story is the search for two U.S. soldiers who went missing in action.

It used to be somewhat rare that you got good fiction coming out of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars. But now it seems like it's cropping up more and more, perhaps as many soldier-writers have returned home and had time to examine with a more refined lens some of the things they saw and felt fighting overseas. In a lot of that fiction, however, what comes through is the feeling that the soldiers must practice a Zen-like form of carefully-honed nihilism with regard to their own mortality. With death all around them, the soldiers must maintain a removed and yet somehow more highly focused existence in order to get by. Like someone examining the ground with a magnifying glass so as to not get distracted by an approaching lightning storm. Look up at the sky for too long...even for a moment...and you're likely to get distracted and make a mistake.

That's the feeling generated by this short story, at least the first part. Kattekoppen, it seems, is the name of a bad-tasting Dutch licorice candy, which the Dutch soldier, Levi, receives in care packages from his mother. When Levi returns to the U.S. for a furlough for the birth of his first child, the other soldiers in the barracks eat his left over Kattekoppen when they run out of other things to eat, even though it tastes putrid and they mostly spit it out.

Levi's absence introduces another character into the story, his replacement, who accompanies the team on a mission while Levi is absent. The seemingly hum-drum way in which the soldiers go about their duty--blowing up caves, launching barrages of howitzer fire at suspected militant hideouts--is remarkable. They make it sound like just another job--albeit, a job which you could take a wrong turn on the way to work and end up dead.

The story is worth reading if for no other reason than for things like Mackin's simplistically elegant descriptions of the pink light cast over a helicopter by a sunrise, or the fine dust kicked up by bomb his unit has just dropped on a detachment of militants. To make poetry out of such material is a feat that, in my opinion, demands attention. Even if at times it makes me squirm and question the depth of my own voyeuristic impulses.

When Levi returns from the U.S., from the birth of his son, it seems he has lost a little bit of his edge. In only two weeks, seeing his child born, he says that he has started to worry for the first time in his life, and perhaps become too focused on the big picture (will he live or die) rather than what's right in front of him. This is evidenced by his missing--just barely--the target in a practice shooting drill conducted upon his return to the base in Afghanistan. One wonders if Levi's return home has caused him to take his eye off the ball for just a second too long...or if he'll regain his edge.

Overall, a nicely-turned vignette about a world seldom treated carefully by the fiction writer's pen, and layered with enough subtext to make it thought-provoking without being ham-handed. Absolutely worth a read, and I will be looking for more of this guy's writing.

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