A USA Today reporter called me a couple years ago to ask, “Which of the 300 books published about the Iraq war”—and this was 2005, just two years into the war—“are going to last like Jarhead and Baghdad Express seem destined to do?” Setting aside the assumption that either my book or Tony’s was going to “last,” the question struck me as ridiculous: “No one knows,” would have been the only proper answer to both her assumption and her question. But you know—you have to play the game, right? I mentioned Generation Kill as a likely candidate, but then said there were two big problems inherent in any book coming out so quickly after its author had served in a war (or a journalist had covered it): “Did they know how to write a novel or memoir?” and “Could they get their head around it—all the way around: morally, aesthetically, and so on?”
I looked back at how it had taken Hemingway and Remarque ten years or so to digest World War One and how, with the exception of Mailer—who had won the Story competition while still at Harvard prior to his WWII enlistment, most of what we now consider the classic accounts—especially in memoir—had taken decades: With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge came out in 1981; Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang in 1979; Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier—out in 1967—was almost precocious by comparison.
There are always exceptions, it’s true, but in general: the longer you wait, with war, the more likely you are to have developed your chops as a writer and cleared your head—and prepared your heart—for the journeys you have to take through your experiences & the even more difficult one of preparing it in such a way that others might take that same journey.
Now, along comes Matthew Eck with The Farther Shore & we’re lucky he took his time: he’s delivered a small masterpiece.