Breakfast with the Dirt Cult
The Red Dirt Syndicate, 2012
If an author comes before me, figuratively speaking, book in hand, saying “Take and read,” and said book, on inspection, turns out to be what’s known as a “war story,” he already has two strikes.
First, I’m not really a fan of the genre. I’m not, as you’ll soon see, anti-“war story,” but it’s not really something I find myself seeking out and devouring, like some people do with westerns or police procedurals.
And second, I am so far from being anti-war story that one of my favorite books, which I tirelessly recommend to all and sundry, is James Gould Cozzens Pulitzer Prize winning, now forgotten, WWII epic Guard of Honor.
So Finlay has quite a row to hoe with me on this. But I can say that Finlay got me from the first page, and kept me reading, in large doses and, when interrupted, with quick returns, right to the end. I think it’s a damned fine book, in the same ballpark of Cozzens’ book — with some reservations, as we’ll see — and I now recommend it to all and sundry as well.
What got ahold of me was twofold; first, thematically speaking, the Hero’s Journey in the modern world — i.e., becoming a man worthy of a role in adult society; and personally, the Canadian setting.
Of course it’s not really fair to compare the masterpiece of a previous generation with a young author’s first novel, but Finlay’s work comes so well by the comparison I think it worth a look.
Like most of his fiction, Cozzens’s concern is with
the intense and even severe moral testing—in one place, in tightly arranged action, and over a brief time (in accord with the classical unities)—of good, although flawed, men. Without causing undue damage to others or themselves, these men must chart the gray seas between duty and temptation, ease and labor, right and wrong—and trust to luck as well. 
Heller [smart-ass author of the 60s’ Catch-22] wished to show that war is ludicrous, Cozzens wished to show that war [just] is, and that people are complex and that what they do and what they think about what they do, matters. That actions taken today and the next day make us who we will be tomorrow and that there are no inconsequential choices. (Amazon review)
The contrast between Cozzens and Heller is the same as what sets Finlay apart from most writers of “war stories”: he is isn’t concerned with smugly mocking the military, nor with making things go boom and cool ways to turn people into hamburger. Finlay, like Cozzens, is studying how children become adults — or not — on the basis of their choices under extreme conditions.
[Being] in charge [Tom Walton, Finlay’s protagonist learns], meant more than just telling people what to do or how to think. It meant loyalty to your own, and giving a damn about what things were like on the grunt-level, and being willing to give your life for the lowest-ranking private in your team if you had to. Leadership demanded that a man never gave an order that he wasn’t prepared to carry out himself. That he had to fight like hell to try to rise above his flaws and hold himself to a higher standard than those under his charge.
Superficially, the books are quite different. Finlay concentrates on one young man, 20ish Tom Walton, who, between his return from Bosnia and redeployment in Afghanistan meets and eventually falls in love with a Canadian stripper in Montreal.
Cozzens takes as his subject not one grunt but an entire Army Air Corps base, but he also upends the whole idea of a “war story” by setting it stateside, in the failed Florida resort area of Ocanara. Some of the brass have heroic flying records, but the only conflict on this base is between the newly arrived Negro pilots that want to use the base officers’ club, and the Florida locals that insist on “segregation forever,” and the only deaths come from the stupidity of an jump instructor. The main focus, base commander Gen. Ira “Bus” Beal, is, at 41, young only in being the youngest two-star general around; he’s already married, with a son.
It ought not to be forgotten, while they beat their brains over this teapot tempest in a Zone of Interior installation … now at this very moment, if the weather had been at all possible, Eighth Air Force bombers were turning, a certain number of them damaged with engines out and dead and wounded on board, to try to make their English bases.
But as I say, these are superficial differences, as both authors are really interested in using the military to explore how a man, as they used to say, “comes of age.”
A crap book could be written — and hundreds have been — in which the Hero’s Journey is Lt. Edsell (not ironic, it’s pre-Ford disaster) courageously struggling against Southern racists and the racist Army. Indeed, the whole country enacted the story during the “Freedom Rider” period. In a great book, like Cozzens’, the Hero is Gen. Beal, and some others, who have nothing against what they would call “the Negro as such” but view their job as keeping things under control while there is a war to be fought elsewhere, and Lt. Edsell is a smug, troublemaking fifth columnist.
“You’re sort of against everything all the time, aren’t you?”
So a crap book today would be some neo-conned tale of America standing tall against evil jihadists, but Finlay’s Hero learns that the real villain and the real struggle is elsewhere; it’s within — within himself, the Army and his whole country. The fifth-columnists — Yockey’s “culture distorters”– have taken over. Modernity was the enemy now:
Western Civilization was no longer populated by the proud citizens of nations made sacred by generations of sacrifice, but by hucksters, consumers, and bullshit peddlers who had traded their rugged birthright to hang upon a cross of modernity.
[Walton’s] yeoman ancestors, with their toughness, high degree of religiosity, and community-centered norms and values, had been handy to have around for whenever the country had needed people to till the dirt, settle the frontier, bale hay, pick cotton, mine coal, turn bolts, work railroads, and fight wars. However, their descendants in the brave new world were to be fitted with a yoke of shame, and to be unofficially branded as trash or vilified in their own home. They were to be fed a steady diet of dissention, entertainment, and dependency infrastructure lest they maintain some semblance of backbone and self-reliance.
He regretted that the first sight of his country had to be one of modernity
The Army, and perhaps romance, is one way to get out from under that controlling diet and find something more real:
With the distractions of the modern world replaced by the possibility of violent death with every step, he felt like the hours of vigilance and anticipation (and fear) he spent up front sharpened something in him. Ancient instincts lying dormant, perhaps. Being on the hunt with his tribe . . . there was rightness to it that appealed to some fundamental aspect of his masculinity . . .
But before we fully explore how modernity has made a difference in the Hero’s Journey, I need to go back and look at the more personal, or idiosyncratic reason I had for reading on: the stripper and her setting. I’ve seen several people criticize this book on the same two grounds: Amy, the bibliophilic stripper, is unreal, and Canada sucks anyway, so his devotion to both is unreal. Well, I think these guys are probably man-o-sphere warriors whose knowledge of strippers comes from playing Grand Theft Auto and knowledge of Canada comes from Fox News or even TakiMag. My personal experience led me to find both elements quite believable and, in fact, gave me a reason to read on and see what he’d do with them.
The “stripper with a heart of gold” as one critic calls Amy, could be a stereotype, but as we on the alt-Right like to say, all stereotypes are based on reality. Why there should be so many well-read, if not well-educated women in the ecdysiast arts I don’t know, but Walton has an answer that fits into his, and the author’s concerns: a modernist society that forces bad choices on women.
As for Canada, I’ve alluded to its seductive charms before, and even Amy herself calls it Hobbitesque; my God, they actually have “shire-reeves” to this day! And despite liquor laws that combined Puritanism (drawn curtains to prevent passing gentleladies from fainting at the sight of drinking) and Byzantine layers of regulation, along with competition from such noted dens of iniquity as Detroit or Buffalo, Ontario in my day had already acquired the reputation of being the Paris or New York of the stripping universe.
Anyway, Amy provides the necessary supplement to the Army story (her name, after all, is almost an anagram of Army, and sometimes these old eyes had to take a second look (although I rather liked the idea of sending a “Death Letter” — a letter written before deployment, to be delivered on his death in combat — to Army rather than Amy).
The Amy story is important for two reasons: stylistic — displaying the author’s range: love and hate, peace and war, men and women, that kind of thing; and thematic: becoming a man in both war and peace. With WACs, wives and whores, as well as wartime but domesticated stateside setting, Cozzens’ broader canvas was able to address both issues:
Cozzens writes with a taut violence at times; and at other times with an expansive warmth – an unusual combination which makes for roundness of impression. . . . his [Nathaniel Hicks, a surrogate for Cozzens] own private adventure with the WAC, Lieutenant Turck, bears evidence to the tensions, the conflicts, incidental to the artificiality of the life of civilians at war” (Kirkus Reviews)
Cozzens had both women and peacetime, but Walton’s wartime world is minimal on the fraternization front — he’s here to find bin Laden, not “win any fucking hearts and minds” one grunt grunts, and they marvel from time to time at a culture that could build elaborate rope bridges but never figure out running water. The only woman in the field is a nurse, and even she stuns a disbelieving Walton when she appears.
What the critics of the two-track narrative don’t seem to realize — is it Finlay’s fault? — is that the as Walton matures — painfully enough — he realizes that the two tracks are ultimately the same, or at least congruent, and that in both cases the real enemy isn’t who or what he’d been taught it was, and it is the same in each case: modernity. In the war, it’s globalization and rule by elite snobs:
The spirit of his age, which knew nothing but to bend knee to the easy, the disposable, and the new.
Something was wrong. The country, the world. . . . The whole spirit of things was shot through with vileness and confusion.
Him and his buddies, Kudah Nahr and his cell, they were merely cogs in a pitiless machine run amok . . . Militarized missionary work on behalf of the Carpetbagger Caste.
With Amy, it’s the tyranny of feminism:
[He] had entered a minefield of a different kind, though no less dangerous.
Seeing her feminine handwriting n the box had made him feel like he’d been shot.
The world had been feeding her “Do as thou wilt” bullshit since she’d been a little girl, and she’d suffered from where it led. And yet, in spite of her wounds, she’d fought, in her own way, to not yield to sorrow. [Amy] had reacted to [it] by crafting a hair-trigger arsenal of weaponized femininity. His dumped-ass was living proof of this.
As a result,
The Third World Shitholes were strong in a way The West wasn’t, and hadn’t been since long before he’d been born. . . . The West looked like a bunch of pussies next to them, having somehow made neurosis into an art form.
And as a veteran of Cozzens’ war tells Walton and his comrades:
Look fellas. Today’s Army . . . well . . . y’all are a bunch of pussies. But that ain’t your fault, ya see, ‘cause America today is a bunch of pussies.
And in both cases, Walton comes to realize the imperative is the same:
And he should be a man, grab his nuts, and quite sniveling.
If he didn’t get his shit wired tight, tout suite, he was going to fuck around and lose her forever.
Ultimately Walton is able to grasp the unity of the two themes of his young manhood:
The foreign souvenirs of failure [that is, from both Afghanistan and Canada] graven into his face, literally, carved into his skull, . . . kindled the contempt that silently taught him a merciless lesson every waking moment of the day. . . . This face, this isolation, this world he now lived in, this was what came from being weak.
War, like love . . . had initiated him into one of the most ancient and universal mystery cults in the human experience, and the silent knowledge it bestowed upon him provided him with a sharper, stronger perspective though which to view the world around him. All in all, Afghanistan and Amy had been damned good training.
This was not how a man was supposed to be, he could now say, and he had the war and Amy to thank for this understanding.
Cozzens’s is a massive book that, through Mann-like compression of time, takes place over a single weekend at a single Army Air Corps base; Finlay’s book is a bit shorter but covers more ground and time, and at the end I think he starts to lose control of his material. The chronology and even itinerary of Walton’s last visit to Amy and subsequent auto accident is unclear, at least to me. There’s also a set piece about suppositories that goes on far too long for its payoff; I suppose it is meant to demonstrate Walton’s backwoods folksiness, and link back to a scene narrated near the beginning, but it just seems to illustrate the anal obsessions that straight guys project on “those homos.”
Speaking of narration: more seriously, the rants against modernity get longer, less interesting, and worst of all begin to take the place of action, even during Walton’s last moments of resolution to grab his balls and be a man. It’s the basic error of telling rather than showing, which the more experienced Cozzens avoids:
Built, bit by bit, as the players in this drama come into view, interact with each other and depart to be seen again later, sometimes in a different light . . . . People are revealed by how they react to other people in diverse situations undergoing setbacks or good fortune. (Amazon review of Guard of Honor)
I also would have liked to see Finlay follow-up some of his blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to “ancient mystery cults” and “war band[s] of pagan gods out for vengeance and blood,” drawing out some of the implications for modern “Americans [who] had learned how to make false gods out of anything. And it was killing them.”
Perhaps that can be done in another novel; I hope Finlay can be encouraged to do just that. Let’s start all of us by going out and buying this book, now!
1. Harcourt Brace, 1948; reprinted by The Modern Library, 1998. Noel Perrin deemed it “probably the best war novel of the twentieth century… There is material for two or three hundred movies.” A Reader’s Delight (1988), p 88.
2. “War at the Top” Whitney Balliett, New York Review of Books, November 4, 1999.
3. “Simple, creamy English charm … Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art.” Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. For a distinctly un-charmed view of Ontario, including my alma mater, see Wyndham Lewis’s memoir of wartime exile, Self Condemned (1954; reprinted by Voyageur Classics in 2010).
4. See Greg Johnson’s “interview” in my collection The Homo and the Negro (Counter-Currents, 2012).