Military veteran and first-time novelist Matthew Robinson did not want to presume too much when he set out to tell a war story. So his luminous The Horse Latitudes, an Oregon Book Award finalist, includes interventions and interruptions by a skeptical, fictional model for a fictional character:
“You think you’re the only one who can tell a story? I can tell my own fucking story, son. You can shove that Hicks up your ass, I’ll write it myself. And it may not be as pretty, but it will be a damn sight more honest. You don’t know shit.
Many writers will be familiar with this voice of self-doubt (and wish they could imbue theirs with the same gift for profanity as punctuation). I asked Robinson whether he also had a voice cheering him on, encouraging him to write. No, he told me, terse as Stone. Instead, he said, he has a compulsion to try to bridge the divide between the tiny population of Americans who have fought the war on terror and the rest of us, whose obliviousness can seem like cruelty.
Robinson, who served in Baghdad in 2004 during a six-year stint with the Oregon National Guard, focuses in The Horse Latitudes on one Cavalry platoon’s Iraqi deployment. He describes war as claustrophobic. There’s fear, confusion, bursts of violence. And boredom, along with lots of reading and a book burning.
The Horse Latitudes is sprinkled with scenes of domestic life among Iraqis, all the more poignant because it has been fractured by war, that must remind the soldiers of their far away homes. Well, all but Kurtzson, who does not seem to have a home outside a war he is not so much fighting as imagining. Yes, Robinson says, the name is meant to evoke Kurtz and Apocalypse Now, though not so much Heart of Darkness.
Kurtz may be the iconic American fighter of our collective, corrosive fantasies. Our knowledge of war and its impact is broadened and deepened by the other characters, including a soldiers who steals a dead comrade’s weapon and shares its parts out among the platoon members.
“I don’t need it gone, I need help carrying it,” he says of the rifle, and of so much more.
I share Robinson’s faith in the power of words to connect us and of narrative to make us whole. Perhaps other vets will, like Stone, see Robinson’s effort as a challenge to be met with their own stories. They should be inspired by his achievement, a book that glows with compassion and for that reason sheds so much light.
We're fortunate Robinson was compelled to write.