The Long Walk:
A Story of War and the Life that Follows by Brian Castner
Book Review by
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Doubleday (July 10, 2012)
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
Review by Tim Bazzett
Publisher: Carnegie-Mellon University Press,
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.