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The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows by Brian Castner

Book Review by Tim Bazzett


Hardcover: 240 pages

Publisher: Doubleday (July 10, 2012)

Price: $25.95

ISBN-10: 0385536208

ISBN-13: 978-0385536202



The word that keeps rising to the top when I try to describe Brian Castner's THE LONG WALK: A STORY OF WAR AND THE LIFE THAT FOLLOWS is "frightening." It's not an adequate word, and it could be misleading, because I'm not frightened for me, but for him. I worry about the long-term after-effects of what the Iraq war did to this young man, and, consequently, to his family. Because both parts of that subtitle—"the war", and "life that follows"—are given equal time at center stage in this scarifying and often morbidly moving memoir. Castner's damaged mind moves freely between those times - the war and his life after - and often seems to have trouble differentiating between the two. He runs daily up and down the streets near his home in upstate New York, trying to tamp down "the Crazy," often "accompanied" by a former comrade who is dead.


This feeling, this terror, he calls "the Crazy" is manifested by erratic heartbeat, a swelling feeling in his chest, paranoid and uncontrollable strategies and plans to kill people he feels are hemming in him in public places, a constant reaching for his rifle which is no longer there—and more. It is an all-consuming paranoia and crippling fear of dying. It sends him repeatedly to VA hospital emergency rooms and, finally, to the shrinks and PTSD counselors.


Two tours in Iraq with an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit exposed Brian Castner and others like him to uncountable blasts and explosions which have left their marks, on his brain and on his psyche. He is not the same young man, the former good Catholic schoolboy, who went off to war, eager to prove himself. Here is how he puts it:


"I died in Iraq. The old me left for Iraq and never came home. The man my wife married never came home. The father of my oldest children never came home. If I didn't die, I don't know what else to call it."


He tells of how "the new me" cries while reading stories to his children or while helping his son into his hockey gear, remembering the blast suit he helped his team members don just before that "Long Walk" down to manually dismantle a particularly troublesome IED that the robots couldn't handle. The old and new "me" of Castner are hopelessly entangled throughout this heartbreaking narrative of war and its aftermath. THE LONG WALK joins what is fast becoming a flood of eloquent and moving memoirs from Iraq and Afghanistan, books like Ben Busch's Dust to Dust: A Memoir, or Kayla Williams's Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, and others by Chris Coppola, Michael Anthony, Nathaniel Fick, Johnny Rico and Anthony Swofford and Joel Turnipseed. The list continues to grow. At the top of my to-read pile now rests yet another: Mike Scotti's The Blue Cascade: A Memoir of Life after War.


Brian Castner is young enough to be my son, could  easily be my son. So yes, I was afraid for him, reading his story. Am still afraid for him, having finished reading it. Because the story hasn't ended for him or for his young family. "The Crazy" continues, tamped down by running and by Yoga.


This is a beautiful book, stark, eloquent and ... Frightening. Yes, that's still the best word I can manage. I can only pray that the telling of his story—writing it all down and putting it into a somewhat structured perspective—has helped; has proved therapeutic. But perhaps the most frightening thing about Castner's book is that his story is only the tip of the iceberg; that he speaks for thousands of others who are unable to articulate what happened to them in Iraq or Afghanistan, young men and women who continue their daily struggle to cope with their own "Crazy." On their behalf, thank you for sharing your story, Brian. Be well. Please.



The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives by Fleda Brown

Book Review by Tim Bazzett



Price: $29.95

Publisher: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2004

ASIN: B0087P84YO



I found Fleda Brown a year or so ago, through her memoir/essay collection, DRIVING WITH DVORAK, which was simply superb. But she's known primarily for her poetry. Although I'm not much of a poetry fan, I figured a book of poems with Elvis in the title might be something I could at least relate to, if not completely understand (my usual problem with poetry: it often leaves me feeling clueless and stupid).


And it turned out I was right—mostly. Because although I was a pretty loyal Elvis fan (the very first LP I ever bought, at 12, was his Christmas album), I can't remember ever getting on my knees to kiss his poster ("Tillywilly Fog"). But there were plenty of other references here I could certainly "get"—Gene Autry, Elvis's army hiatus (during which time my own favorite, Ricky Nelson, reigned supreme on the pop charts). I'm pretty sure Ricky gets mentioned here too, as well as Roy Orbison, although I'm pretty sure Roy, who had his own distinctive sound, never really tried "to sound like Elvis," as Brown avers in the title poem. The Beatles are in here too, as well as the Cold War (with which I am extremely familiar).


And then there's "Sputnik, 1957," which needs no explanation, as well as the famous meeting between Elvis and Nixon. Even Rod Stewart's "Maggie Mae" is in here, which reminded me of the first time I heard that song, on the highway between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti in Michigan, just as my VW muffler blew out. But Brown's poems are also very personal, with their references to family, coming of age, raging hormones, failed marriages and more.


As poetry goes, THE WOMEN WHO LOVED ELVIS ALL THEIR LIVES, is a quirky combination of funny and profound. Even for a poetry moron like me, it was eminently accessible. If you grew up in the 50s and 60s, you'll probably like these poems.

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Summer 2012 Issue