Theodore Weesner’s final novel, Carrying, is a gritty and realistic work that throws the reader into the detonating heart of the first Iraqi war. With unapologetic candor, Weesner navigates the psychological minefield surrounding South Boston native Jimmy Murphy, a young soldier who pens a secret journal to his old English professor, Herman Roth. Jimmy’s life pulsates with rage, racial prejudice, and unfulfilled desire as he fights to become the top gunner of the elite 2nd Cavalry Tank Division. His rapid rise through the ranks gives him a sense of purpose and order, even as the war descends into chaos, and Iraq transforms into a wasteland of burning oil wells and charred corpses. But when it’s all over, will he really be able to leave the war behind? This timely novel inserts itself into the zeitgeist of the young soldiers who return home, but never quite leave the battlefield, carrying the deepest wounds of shock, fear, and aggression. With his signature penetrative style, Weesner beautifully renders one soldier’s heart breaking coming-of-age journey in the midst of terror and endless war.
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About the Author
Born in Flint, Michigan, Theodore Weesner has aptly been described as a "Writer's Writer" by the larger literary community. His short works have been published in the New Yorker, Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, Atlantic Monthly, and Best American Short Stories. His novels, including The Car Thief, The True Detective, Winning the City, and Harbor Lights, have been published to great critical acclaim in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and others. He died in June, 2015.
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Front Line Experience
The 'front line' for me was the forest of growing up, the taking of first steps into awareness. For Jimmy Murphy it was experience of the kind I knew at his age on entering the world under similar circumstances. Jimmy was honest. I found him likable, enjoyed visiting myself through him ... though I must admit that while I was careful and painstaking, he was smart and brash. Where I was introverted, he was able to confront others as he had me with his crack about the Celtics beating the Pistons. If not for his aggressiveness, I wouldn't have taken any interest in him.
Logic, to him, was leverage. When his African American stablemate lost his cool over a white kid using a word he claimed to be his alone, Jimmy challenged his logic. I thought he might be on to something in his charge of the stablemate using anger as a means of asserting control. His observation that certain African Americans loved hearing the word for the license it gave to hate was an insight worthy of analysis. At the same time I thought he underestimated the offense the word could inflict when used by a white person in anything close to a denigrating way. In the locker room incident, I thought the boxer Leon gave an honest response, if he did so in an irrational and ignorant way.
For a good six or eight weeks Jimmy failed to write with his address, and I must admit that I began to forget he existed. As I went along in my daily life (my daughter and son, thirty-somethings, living in New York and D.C.), I assumed Jimmy was also gone, too preoccupied (like most youngsters) to write from boot camp. When he finally did write, I was confused by his letter's appearance in my mailbox. Oh yes, Jimmy Murphy, I thought, absorbing the Fort Knox return address. The smart ass kid I mentored and befriended down through his last years of high school. The kid to whom, for several years, I served as writing and reading coach and big brother. His letter was handwritten and half a page long.
"Dear Friend," he opened, at an apparent loss for how to address me. "Insanely busy getting through basic," he noted, adding that it was his first chance, in a transfer company after basic, to sit down and write.
"You'd like this place because it's full of the discipline you think is the berries," he added as a slight dig.
The line made me grin, Jimmy ragging me as he had in the past and doing so with enough affection to say he cared. "Just finished the infantry phase of basic," he said. "Physically tough. Mentally, too. On the way to armor school right here at Knox. Hope to become a gunner in an M1A1 Abrams! Enuf for now. All tired out and here comes the end of the page," he added by way of signing off. "Jimmy."
My impression was that it was his first occasion of ever writing to anyone aside from his mother. (Who teaches letter-writing if not a mother, a father, a big sister or brother, by example?) I envisioned him lining up at the PX to buy stationary, gearing up, finding a time, place, and frame of mind within which to take on the task of putting words on paper in expression of his feelings. In calling me "Dear Friend" he indicated that he had never composed any missives of the kind before, least of all to the teacher and big brother I represented.
Writing back, I said, "By the way, call me Bro, or Prof," to encourage him to feel at ease and even creative in any additional letters he might send my way. A brother teaching by example, I told myself. Thus did I also try to be light and funny, including a self-mocking account of a faculty meeting I had had to attend to vote to retain or oust the departmental chair. ("Not the thing the boss sits in but the boss who does the sitting," I noted, hoping to make him smile in response to the playful language.)
Challenge him with a modest writing task he'll enjoy, was my thought. Get him to describe a buddy or training sergeant. "Enjoy yourself when you write," I added. "Have fun picking out words. Look to be clever and funny while constructing sentences. Use figurative language! Do you know how much more enjoyable it is to read that a sergeant 'snarls like a mad dog' than it is to be told that a sergeant is 'severe'?"
Truth is, given the months that had passed before Jimmy wrote with his address and the anxiety his letter-writing seemed to make him suffer, I didn't expect anything to follow–not, at least, for another stretch of months. Our friendship, I assumed, would go the way of most every teacher-student relationship I had ever known. Soon upon graduation, that is, there would occur a single exchange followed by nothing ever again, the student in his or her moves putting off writing until a certain mentor died or the student-teacher relationship simply ceased to exist.
Imagine my surprise when, within two weeks, I received an envelope stuffed with a thickness of pages of freed-up penmanship!
"Thanks for the letter writing tips and cool style tips," Jimmy said on the first page. "All at once I feel at ease writing to a prof who won't be correcting my grammar and making me feel like a toad.'
Toad? It was a telling image that had me smiling. This kid, I thought. He's never stopped surprising me.
In the body of his letter Jimmy used 'toad' again, remarking that the NCOs in armor school were not like "mad dogs or toads but more like brainy NFL linebackers who, contrary to convention, shout and curse less often than they speak one-on-one to boots to explain why something has to be done this way and not that."
Contrary to convention? Brainy NFL linebackers? His clear use of language surprised me, and when I wrote back, saying, "I was impressed by your use of language ... has you sounding more like a journalist than a recruit in armor school," he wrote in turn to say that he had been reading magazines at the post library and, besides, "I had a great teacher I try to emulate, a Big Brother who turned me on to how cool it can be to write figuratively and impressionistically (is there such a word?)."
I snickered and thought, again, what a smart ass ... but also what a bright kid, feeling admiration for the eighteen-year-old who was learning so much so quickly and who was able to absorb lessons of life that many young people never learn at all. As he proceeded through four months of armor school (again, almost never writing) he learned, like most everyone in his training company, that he had been assigned to what was called the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in Germany, where he hoped, "on more experience and some promotions, to become a gunner in a sixty-ton M1A1 mud-belly."
He had also heard, in a fireside talk by a major just returned from Germany, that deployment to Europe could mean redeployment, on additional training, to a nation called Kuwait on the Persian Gulf that Iraq was giving every sign of planning to invade. Spending another Saturday night browsing books and magazines in the post library ("it's more fun than watching TV in the Day Room or getting bombed in town") he read the following in a magazine called Foreign Affairs, which, given, he said, that it confirmed what they had heard from the major, might be foretelling his future. ("I copied it down. Tell me, Bro, is it cool to copy a big thing like this in a letter?")
In an attempt to clarify American policy, reporters asked top State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler whether the U.S. had any commitment to defend Kuwait.
Tutwiler replied, "We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait."
As soon as the report of Tutwiler's comments arrived in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein summoned U.S. Ambasssador Glaspie for an interview. "I have summoned you today to hold comprehensive political discussions," he said. "This message is for President Bush."
Saddam laid out Iraq's economic plight for Glaspie's benefit. When he mentioned the price of oil and suggested $25 a barrel, Glaspie replied that many Americans "Would like to see the price go above $25 because they come from oil-producing states."
Saddam replied, "The price at one stage dropped to $12 a barrel, and a reduction of $6 to $7 billion in the modest Iraqi budget is a disaster."
Glaspie replied, "We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. We have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait."
Writing to Jimmy, I applauded him for the clarity and thoughtfulness of his letter. Impressed by his ability to see how political circumstances might relate to him personally, I added, "I liked the inclusion of the background report about what is going on in Kuwait and what you might face if that major is right and you end up being sent there."
I also praised him for starting a journal, adding that keeping a journal was a good way to order his thinking and to create a record of his moves. "Journals are fascinating to read when some time has gone by. Who knows, maybe you'll end up writing an article or even a book, in which case firsthand info would be invaluable."
I applauded him as well for his description not of a buddy or of a training sergeant but of the lieutenant colonel who was his squadron commander, a man "as short and gray as somebody's grandfather but who had won a Silver Star in Vietnam and was said by his platoon sergeant to fear nothing, no enemy or any senior officer on base or in Washington D.C."
In my responses I treated Jimmy like the first-rate student he had been, urging him to trust his abilities to see and to broaden his reach. Nor did I mind that I could be opening the door as teacher and sounding board to letters of length in what could become a correspondence course with me serving as an unpaid professor! As a youngster without a father, Jimmy was growing up, writing to me like a son or a student, using me in a big brotherly way ... which I did not mind.
* * *
His first letter from Germany (written on a steno pad with a curled wire spine) came after he had arrived at a town called Bindlach for assignment to 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment as the loader in an M1A1 tank with a four-man crew. His tank was nicknamed 'The Claw,' he said. Other tanks in his squadron were called 'Assassin,' 'Dracula,' 'Arnold,' 'Whispering Death,' 'The Final Word,' the names stenciled on bore evacuators–the cylinders mounted halfway along a tank's main cannon. There were nine M1A1s in his troop, plus thirteen Bradleys, "which look like tanks but are used for probing and scouting," two M106 mortar carriers, and two armored command vehicles, ninety-six creepy crawlers altogether in his squadron plus ten Humvees with and without machine guns mounted. One M1A1 in B Troop was called 'Roseanne,' he added, though no female soldiers were assigned to the 900-man combat squadron, most of them happy to have beds to sleep in rather than cramping into tanks or on the ground in shelter-halves attached to tank fenders, to have "oil-free jobs doing other things in the dry buildings on base."
The balance of Jimmy's initial steno pad entries follow.
Have been keeping this journal, Bro, like you advised. Have been wanting to tell you what happened when we landed at Rhein/Main and went through a four-day orientation before loading into trucks, buses, vans for shipment to bases in Germany.
African Americans! The army's full of them and it's like the bastards won't leave me alone! I love them when they're smart and funny, hate them when they're criminal and stupid and act all black. Can I say that? Anyway, I ended up having a knock-down drag-out with a gangbanger in the back of a truck driving eight of us to Christensen Barracks in Bindlach. I disliked the brother from the get-go. Before that it's fair to say that I was wowed by a black female spec five who has to be one of the sharpest babe soldiers anywhere. Goes to show how crazy things can be with African Americans!
Here's the deal. Our trucks and vans are waiting with motors running outside the deployment hut. It's just after 0700 hours and the air outside is chilly. (It's March, after all, not the best time to be riding under a canopy in a truck opened to the rear without any heat!) Across the Rhein/Main tarmac big commercial jets are lifting off every half-minute, leaving trails of exhaust that make Germany smell fresh and foul at the same time. We boots have filed from the hut carrying our duffel bags and rucksacks, the women soldiers carrying their purses with shoulder straps for their girl stuff, all of us sniffing and looking around like dog-soldiers to fathom what lies ahead. Me, I'm feeling okay. My goal is to get promoted to E-4, and E-5, so I can qualify as a gunner on whatever tank I get assigned to. A gunner is what I want to be.
Where we line up behind the vehicles, the vans look warm inside while the canvas-covered trucks are cold and dark. All the same, our optimism is high and we're excited to be here! Preference for duty in Germany is second only to Hawaii. All that stands in the way is cool air and a bumpy ride in a covered truck on the famous Autobahn.
This lady spec five comes along with her clipboard, wearing a lettuce green blouse and a forest green skirt. Bemedaled in ribbons and army gold! She looks great as she pivots and starts highstepping backwards in her brown sensibles, calling out our names. She slaps bumpers with her clipboard and sounds just like a German. "Wurzburg!"
More names and more taps on bumpers: "Schweinfurt!" "Bad Kissigen!" "Bamberg!" "Nuremberg!" "Bindlach/Bayreuth!"
She gets into it and gets your attention like one of those people you meet in the army or anywhere who turn out to be incredible. "Load it up, young bloods!" she sings out. "Enjoy the cool spring air of Germany! Won't be chilly, you get underway. Need rises, remove yo overcoats from yo duffel bags, cover yo little baby-selves! One pit-stop per manifest! Midday chow on arrival at yo destination! Hang tough over here, young bloods! Be smart! Make yo mommas proud, wherever they be!"
Back-stepping to another truck, she calls, "You bloods enjoy yo'selves in the new army! Learn to be good soldiers, you'll be happy for the rest of yo stupid lives! Adios, amigos! Load it up! Snuggle up so you don't freeze to death in the new army!"
"Ma'am, how long to Whirrsberg?"
"Vhairz-bairg!! Pick up on that umlaut, soldier! New army ain't no social service agency, not no more. Gotta be smart in today's army! Vhairz-bairg! Leighton Barracks. Two hours here to there. Shoot, you get nothing outta that orientation?! Don't be pissing me off! Vhairz-bairg! Start learning ... NOW!"
A couple soldiers, likewise adoring her, try "Vherzbairg" and grin like me in enjoyment of her sisterly sass. "Vairzberg, ma'am."
"Keep yo noses clean," she calls when it's my turn to climb into the rear of a truck under canvas. "Mind yo Ps, Qs, and umlauts! Have yo'selves a time over here! Learn to talk some Deutsch! Get smart in your dumb-ass lives for a change, 'specially you bloods! Don't be looking for no double-A momma tell you everything to do! This be the world, boys and girls! Understand? It be yours from which to grow before it is too late."
* * *
Adoring the spec five in her crisp uniform (what a soldier!) I climb into the rear of the truck she just tapped. Tossing in my duffel bag, I turn to help the next soldier, a double-A girl with big eyes and ice-needle hair seeking to escape her overseas cap. Offering a hand, I pull her up into the cramped space. As our boarding concludes, I settle onto a bench seat on one side, my feet among duffel bags and rucksacks, and the cute black girl, among others, does the same more or less opposite. Leg room is sparse at best. I smile at her. The flamboyant spec five has us all in a good mood. The girl smiles back, warming my hungry heart. The truck bed is like a tent with negative headroom and holds seven or eight of us, mostly male with the three females. It has someone joking, "Mind if I smoke?"
Slouching on the benches, using rucksacks as pillows and armrests, duffel bags as foot-rests, we settle in, waiting for the gears to crank and the truck to rock and roll to our new life in Bindlach/Bayreuth.
"Gonna be a long-ass ride on rock shocks," comes from a soldier up near the dark cabin of the truck that holds the pilot and co-pilot, a corporal and a PFC.
Time goes then to army waiting. Like what's new? All at once, however, the gears engage, and as carbon monoxide fills the air somebody mocks, "Gas! Gas!"
The driver grinds into gear and the truck's big wheels begin at last to roll. Down-shifting, the driver finds a gear in which to accelerate, gears down further and does it again as he swings left, and left again. By now the tented space is taking in fresh air and the vehicle is squealing power on the upgrade. We're on our way. Sunlight is coming up on the new world. It's as promised in recruiting stations, an opening of curtains in a way to a lighted sky.
* * *
"First of a new breed born of equality," a major told us during our indoctrination at Rhein/Main. I was so impressed by his cool line that I wrote it down with some other things he had to say.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Carrying"
Copyright © 2015 Theodore Weesner.
Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Praise for Theodore Weesner,
Chapter one - Front Line Experience,
Chapter two - A Lesson for the Teacher,
Chapter three - Working at Home,
Chapter four - Looking For a Place to Live,
Late august 1990,
Late october 1990,
Chapter six - Rewriting a Dream,
Chapter seven - Living History,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Carrying follows the life of Jimmy Murphy, from South Boston, as told by his ex-teacher and friend Herman Roth. The plot follows Jimmy’s life from a young 14 year old to an amateur boxer, through to a serving soldier deployed to the Gulf War. It then follows his life outside of the army, after serving for his country. I must say straight off that I had quite a hard time reading this book. I really wanted to love it as the Gulf War was something that I studied and was interested in. I kept journals of events and newspaper cuttings, etc, so it was a war I knew a thing or two about. However, I found the book hard to swallow. There was a lot of racial and expletive language, and also a few words that when translated into British English had a completely different meaning, which took some getting used to. The book opens quite slowly, building up to the war, and I felt like it dragged on for a little too long. The part where Jimmy served in the Gulf War was the most interesting and was quite action packed. Unfortunately, I didn’t connect with the characters, and I feel that this is one of the reasons that I found the book hard to read. I’m sorry to say that this book really wasn’t something I could get my teeth into, even though I really wanted to. In the right hands this book could be a five star rating. For me, I’m afraid it is only three stars.