Book Review, Mike Basset – July 22, 2013
Love and Art
I just finished reading Jim McGarrah’s book, Breakfast at Denny’s (Ink brush Press 2013). I highly recommend it even for people who think they do not like contemporary poetry. It is simultaneously lyrical, brutal, gritty, prophetic, wry, and warm. A rebellious cry for facing ugly truths both personal and historical, this book is also a bluesy invitation to embrace the desire-drunk, wounded, absurd struggles and strivings of humanity. Marge, the mother who reads the news every day to her vegetative son, declares, “We’re all collateral damage in God’s design […] it’s the price we must pay for being human.”
In the opening poem, ”Interstate 24” the speaker claims “Like a shark, inertia drives me crazy,” and to be sure Jim McGarrah’s mind is on the move full of a restless energy even in still moments. The poems in this collection are memory-haunted and “One thing leads to another in a nostalgic mind” (“Icons”). In some poems the confrontation is with memory both personal and collective and the continued injustices and horrors that stain America, as in “On the Streets of Saigon in the 21st Century After Reading a U.S. Court Decision Finding the Makers of Agent Orange Not responsible For Birth Defects in Vietnamese Children”At other times the poems seem to address the twin truths of the irresistible pull of desire and dreams and the inedibility of heartbreak.
“The fear of being trapped by boredom drove us crazy./It festered in our guts till/ this curdled milk of small town ennui—the idea/that happiness is always somewhere else—steered us/ separate ways to larger cities and more exotic dreams” Book Review - Mike Bassett:
“Somewhere, hidden deep in everyone, there’s a memory that will destroy dreams.”
These poems are not only chronicles of cultural change but meditations on perpetual perishing. Even readers born before or after McGarrah’s generation can resonate with poems like “My Childhood is Dead—Long Live My Childhood.”
“Fifty years have passed since I first stuck a piece / of Wrigley’s Spearmint to the bottom of a seat/ to kiss a girl named Pam while Elmer Fudd stuttered/ through my self-conscious pubescence. Once,/ some businessman partitioned the main floor/ into four separate screens without vision of a future where memory and imagination, fractious brothers/ that they are, might play, free in a world full of cell phones and iPads outside the doors./ Now, I’m driving past the movie house one last time./ the marquee’s busted, the doors are sealed with plywood,/ but the scent of popcorn rushes in the car’s open window.”
In one of the stories in her collection “Self-Help” Lorrie Moore has a mother tell her daughter that “Love is art not truth.” McGarrah’s poems superimpose the two. The poems urge us to love the art of living of being in the world in a certain way full of awareness and vitality. There is an unrelenting accusation though, a constant reminder of our capacity to bullshit ourselves and others. In “A Savage Cup of Coffee” the speaker is suspicious of his refined romantic sensibilities in his musings on an attractive barista.
“her glide between the coffee machine and the pastry case, like a ballerina in sneakers one second and a stripper on a pole the next, flogs my old blood into adolescent frenzy. When she breaks and sits next to me, knees tucked beneath her chin as calyx for the blossom of her face, cinnamon overwhelms the room” “This is all romantic crap—really.”
You will be well rewarded living in these poems where history is irony not melodrama and love is the art of coping with the truths that are deeper and higher than our politics, philosophies and justifying narratives.
A Temporary Sort of Peace
Indiana Historical Society Press. 2007.
A Review by Gary E. May
The title for this work immediately betrays what McGarrah believes about his Vietnam experiences—it is not easily wrestled into submission and there may be additional demons lurking in the recesses of the vast memory files. McGarrah, a Professor of Creative Writing, demonstrates his prodigious writing skills in this engaging, accessible and brutally honest work. His tentativeness, perhaps reflecting anxiety about the unknown, seems to blunt his introspection and critical self analysis.
After the opening scene set in a VA Mental Hygiene Clinic where he is being assessed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while thoughts of Vietnam intrude, McGarrah begins his recollections with his life and upbringing in Princeton, Indiana. He was an accomplished prep athlete with what is described as a forceful, driving father, a mostly unavailable mother and a younger sister. While McGarrah provides a detailed, gut wrenching description of his relationship with his father when he was challenged about being caught in a lie, most of his treatment of his family relationships provide only a tease and leaves much to the imagination to determine what family life was like and how it might help explain McGarrah's rash decision to join the Marines after flunking out of college.
The description of the early years is appropriately seasoned by teen male obsession with sex and ham-handed encounters with dating, petting and romance. McGarrah recounts the loss of the object of his sexual fantasy to a competing suitor, but shirks this experience as unimportant even while he acknowledges the preeminence of this relationship in his life. Much remains unsaid.
McGarrah's Vietnam tour, described in detail that rivals Caputo's Rumor of War, is pretty standard fare by this time. The novelty of Vietnam's particular horrors in the annals of combat has been dulled by its retelling in several popular works over the past few decades. And yet, by the time we get to Vietnam with McGarrah we have a "connection" with him, and we care what happens, not least when he is wounded during the Tet offensive in 1968—his is far from a detached regurgitation of facts only.
Just as we care about McGarrah in Vietnam, we care about him upon his return. This, too, is a familiar scenario of drugs, jobs, broken relationships, soul searching, existential crises, wandering and confusion. McGarrah's writing style connects with the reader. The descriptions of fraternity parties, anonymous sex, youthful naiveté, idealism, geographic remedies, and blatant stupidity are engaging. An informed reader is reminded of psychologist John Wilson's description of Vietnam veterans as teens with a middle aged frame of reference that was launched forward at hyper speed impelled by experiences in Vietnam, although McGarrah seems oblivious to this as he tells his story.
Having achieved the credentials of legitimacy with a MFA degree, McGarrah joined the academy as a Professor of Creative Writing. He taught at the university that employs me. There he distinguished himself as a good, passionate teacher who challenged his students to do their best work. I am personally familiar with exemplary work he did with one student, Joe Sayyah, a Vietnam veteran who died from Agent Orange poisoning. McGarrah gave this student a creative outlet for his angst, an understanding ear, and gentle incentives to do his best work in creating a legacy of his own.
In 2005, McGarrah received a Faculty Research and Creative Works Award to return to Vietnam with his adult son, John. This was obviously a significant opportunity for McGarrah to write the epilogue for the book. He was able to meet with a noted Vietnamese poet, Vo Que. Touring and chatting with this nationally recognized poet was obviously a highlight for McGarrah, as was the peace ceremony where he and Vo Que wrote and recited original poems intended to heal spiritual scars. Overall, the description of the return’s pathos pales when compared to the works of Scurfield and other Vietnam veterans who have returned to Vietnam, many of whom adopted more deeply introspective and evaluative perspectives.
McGarrah's understated account of the return to Vietnam (“home”) embodies a substantial dissipation of energy and enthusiasm for the trip. For example, in a taxi ride, McGarrah and his son pass a temple that was the site of a horrific battle during McGarrah’s tour. His immediate reaction, “Goddamn it.” When questioned by his son, he says, “I blew that temple up. I’m in the middle of my old base camp. The government must have left it as some kind of reminder, which is ironic since both governments encourage your generation to forget”, to which John responds, “It’s better economics to forget one war,..That makes it easier to start a new one.” This exchange closes with McGarrah’s understated hope that his son’s awareness of history’s tendency to repeat will lead toward the wisdom to change.
There are contemporary photographs throughout the book. For someone who shares McGarrah's experiences as a Marine, and as one who grew up in the same county and time frame as the author, I personally found the photos to be an affront to aging. That's not the way we look today; we've aged, and that's part of the story. That said, readers of our generation will find in these photos powerful anchors to Midwest America baby boomer upbringing.
This is an important contribution to the growing volumes of "Vietnam books". Its strongest points are the writing style, the engagement of readers, the description of war's aftermath and its tentative hopefulness. The reader is likely to feel unfulfilled and "left hanging" about McGarrah's family dynamics and his underdeveloped insights about "what it all means". Finally, readers will feel hopeful that McGarrah's journey and search for meaning will continue, resulting in a permanent peace, rather than 'a temporary sort of peace,' for him.
Caputo, P. A Rumor of War. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York. 1977.
J.P. Identity, Ideology, and Crisis: the Vietnam Veteran in Transition: a Partial and Preliminary Report Submitted to the Disabled American Veterans Association on the Forgotten Warrior Project. Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. 1977.
Scurfield, R.M. Healing Journeys: Study Abroad with Vietnam Veterans. Vol. 2 of a Vietnam Trilogy. Algora Publishing, New York, NY. 2006.
Gary E. May is an Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern Indiana, and a Vietnam veteran newly elected to the National Board of Veterans For Peace
When the Stars Go Dark
By Jim McGarrah
(Main Street Publishing House, Charlotte NC, 2009)
(ISBN 13: 978-1-59948-153-1, ~78 pages, $14)
Review by Tara McDaniel
When I started this collection of poems I told myself I wouldn't give a review that wasn't fair and accurate. However, I soon discovered the delights of his poetry and found myself hovering on the arm of my couch in the middle of the night, chewing my fingernails and turning the pages as if I were reading some bestselling thriller instead of a book of poems. In other words, these poems really wrapped me up, got into me, and ultimately moved through me--so I happily here give the book 5 stars.
There's something truly incredible about these poems that, in my post-surgical sleepy state, I'm afraid I can't do intellectual justice to. But the feeling is there, and the deep connection that I felt reading these poems persists even now. McGarrah somehow takes a moment, a place--whether that is an interstate or a bar or diner--and weaves through it remnants of the past, as if in every moment our memories tug at us and weave into our present consciousness, and in doing this transform themselves into something beautiful, electric, heavy, or sad. As my husband remarked (who also picked up this book from the arm of the couch and could not stop reading,) "this poet really knows how to pull a poem together. He's got these brilliant last lines. The experience of the poem is drawn to a close, and there is suddenly understanding or meaning...or maybe just a bolt of recognition."
I especially liked the imagination in these poems, the sight of "Jesus and me puking friend clams/ dry heaving like beached flounders, or pissing/ up some brick wall behind the Waffle House." (from Traveling). Or, "Moss streaks the water green/ and blue as if some numb Impressionist slung/ his pallet from one of the small sampans/ moored next to a rusted freighter/ skipped it, like a flat stone, around the cut bank." I think what was great about these poems was feeling that I experienced those things in some way also, even if my personal life has been little like McGarrah's.
A Temporary Sort of Peace
by Jim McGarrah
Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007. 251 pages, hardcover. $19.95. Also available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
Review by Tara McDaniel
This was one of the best memoirs I’ve read. Memoir is not my first
pick among reads because, in general, I find them tedious and
long-winded—what will do in 100 pages is instead done in 300 or 350.
I’d rather read a novel and be entertained. However, McGarrah’s memoir
not only reads like a novel and jaunts along quickly to its end (there
are many page-turning stories in this book), but it has the added
benefit of a real-life-narrator admitting vulnerabilities and sharing
hard-won wisdom with his reader throughout.
McGarrah begins his story in the present moment, as a Vietnam veteran
arriving at the VA Clinic. The reader is quickly introduced to the
lasting effects of the narrator’s experience as a soldier in Vietnam.
McGarrah juxtaposes the realities of physical and psychological
treatment for war veterans in America with visceral flashbacks of
combat. It is a little unnerving but McGarrah swiftly brings the
reader back in time to his childhood in Indiana, where we get the
beginnings of his story but also a healthy dose of humor. In this way
McGarrah balances the horrors of his story with laughter and a sense
of shared experienced between reader and writer. This is a hallmark of
the entire book and one of the reasons why it was so enjoyable to
The first quarter of the book highlights the main developments in the
writer’s life prior to Vietnam. The mid-section is life in Vietnam—a
well-plotted string of stories about the smells and tastes of a new
culture, life at camp, frightfully real action scenes of combat, and
the psychological tolls that were taken upon the men and women
struggling to survive on both sides. Here McGarrah shows his prowess
as a poet as well as a man of humor. Describing his mess hall food as
“some kind of roasted pseudo-beef with huge globs of mashed potatoes
drowned in a dark brown gelatinous substance labeled gravy” offers a
necessary respite from the terror of combat and violent death.
But even in these scenes, McGarrah manages to make his prose
beautiful, as if to contain the gore and violence in a digestible
format for the reader: “The trees dipped and swirled with the monsoon
breeze. The bamboo played a tango so hypnotic and hallow I hardly
noticed another whistle, the harsh hiss of a RPG ripping through the
melody like off-key fusion jazz. Sheep must have heard it, though,
because he opened his arms wide and embraced the rocket. It entered
him and became him, sending all unnecessary attachments in different
directions. Arms flew east and west and his head shot skyward as if it
were a basketball some referee had tossed for the opening jump. Damp
grit splattered my fatigues and face.”
In the final quarter of the book, McGarrah relates his experience in
the Tet Offensive and his resulting wounds. He also shares his time in
the hospital with other wounded vets, exploring the psychological
impact of war, and his return to American life. What is so striking
about the last part of the book, though, is when McGarrah returns to
Vietnam in 2005. Here he meets the honored Vietnamese poet Vo Que, and
together they create a new relationship based on peace, respect, and
understanding. The photographs in this book are outstanding, and the
last scene in the book will make you gasp.
Susan Neville - Demia Professor of English, Butler University
James McGarrah's A Temporary Sort of Peace belongs on the same
shelf with the great memoirs of the Vietnam War, including Michael
Herr's Dispatches and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
McGarrah chronicles his Vietnam experience, his years growing up
in southern Indiana, and his return, now altered, to that once-
familiar landscape, in a voice both lyrical and deeply felt. McGarrah
never flinches from the truth. This book is a must-read for anyone
who wants to understand the lasting effects of war.
Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever and From Our House
Jim McGarrah is an expert storyteller with a fine sense of the music language can make, be it the storm of a summer toad-strangler in small-town Indiana, the pounding hearts of teenage lovers, the bass thumps of M-79 grenade launchers in a Vietnam firefight, the symphony of Saigon traffic years after the war is over. A Temporary Sort of Peace makes clear, though, that wars are never finished, at least not for the ones who fight them, the ones left to make sense of the beauty and the thrill and the terror.
--Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever and From Our House
June 5th, 2008
by Jerry Waxler
Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.
I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what it was I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.
While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.
Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.
Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”
Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.
Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.
Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using Hector’s body as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.
Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.
“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.
The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah leaves the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.
By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.
For an excellent, readable clinical explanation of PTSD, and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.
For an account of another type of trauma, all too common in civilian life, read Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky. To read my essay about Alice Sebold’s traumatic memoir, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.
Other war trauma books:
Tracy Kidder, My Detachment
Tobias Wolff, In the Pharoah’s Army
William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness
Note: Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to actually increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.
Note: Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.
Betrayal shatters faith in the world.
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.
The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.