*Named one of Wall Street Journal's Best Books of 2015
*Selected as a Military Times's Best Book of the Year
An intricate mystery unfolds against the backdrop of the Afghanistan war in this former Army Captain's gripping portrait of a fighting division holding a remote outpost.
"You're going up the Valley."
Black didn't know its name, but he knew it lay deeper and higher than any other place Americans had ventured. You had to travel through a network of interlinked valleys, past all the other remote American outposts, just to get to its mouth. Everything about the place was myth and rumor, but one fact was clear: There were many valleys in the mountains of Afghanistan, and most were hard places where people died hard deaths. But there was only one Valley. It was the farthest, and the hardest, and the worst.
When Black, a deskbound admin officer, is sent up the Valley to investigate a warning shot fired by a near-forgotten platoon, he can only see it as the final bureaucratic insult in a short and unhappy Army career. What he doesn't know is that the warning shot was not the worst crime in the Valley before his arrival, and his investigation will not only disturb the platoon's dark secrets but launch a shattering personal odyssey of obsession and discovery.
The Valley is a mind-bending mystery and a riveting tour de force that announces John Renehan as a great American storyteller.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 2.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
John Renehan served in the Army's Third Infantry Division as a field artillery officer in Iraq. He previously worked as an attorney in New York City. He lives with his family in Virginia. This is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
"Dude, don't do it."
Black startled and turned in his chair to see one of his least favorite people in the Army.
Bradley Derr, twenty-four going on college freshman, slouched behind him with his hands in his uniform pockets, lip fat with dip, peering over Black’s shoulder at the memo sitting out in the open on his desk. Black hadn’t heard him approach. Hadn’t even noticed as Derr placed the plastic soda bottle he used for his dip spit on the desk right next to Black’s arm.
He considered the bottle now as its two inches of dark brown fluid content came to rest. He turned slowly back to Derr and regarded him with a look that he thought was full of significance. It bounced right off Derr’s sunburned forehead.
“Damn, Black, you lost in space or something?”
He had been. Before Derr appeared he’d been staring for a long time at the same piece of paper that Derr now gestured to with a flip of his chin.
“Dude, I’m telling you. Don’t do it.”
Derr was a lieutenant. A junior officer like Black. Unlike Black, he did not work behind a desk in the battalion’s paperwork office. Derr spent most of his time outside the dreary midsize base where Black spent all of his time, stomping through the Afghan backhills with his platoon and shooting at people. It was precisely what Derr had imagined he would be doing when he set out to become an Army officer, and the universe had graciously given him no reason to question his assumptions.
Once every couple of weeks he would come back to the base with his guys and spend a day or so crunching around gravel pathways in his sunglasses and eating at the chow hall. When he had paper- type business he needed help with, he made his way back to Black, to be found reliably behind his desk doing precisely the opposite of what he had imagined when he became an Army officer.
Which was where Derr stood now, sunglasses inverted on the back of his head, looking down at Black with mild pity from beneath blond gel spikes.
“What do you need, Derr?”
“I need a hard copy of my pay stub so I can show the bitchwife I ain’t holding out on her.”
Derr considered himself a laugh riot, in addition to handsome and suave. Apparently some misguided young lady somewhere back in the United States thought so too. Derr was, inexplicably, married.
“Bitchwife” was only one of the fond names by which Black had come to know Derr’s beloved. She was also, depending on the day, “fuckslut,” “my opinion,” or “the ‘ho,’ ” along with other names Black cared to forget. It occurred to him that he did not actually know the unfortunate girl’s name.
“Such deep respect,” he said blandly as he turned to his computer.
“Pfft! You should hear what she makes me call her in bed.”
He laughed and sent a fresh muddy slug into his dip bottle. He was proud of his ability to spit shining wads of tobacco phlegm cleanly through a two-centimeter Coke bottle opening, straight to the tidy puddle at the bottom, without leaving the brown residue often seen trickling down the insides of such receptacles. Derr considered this, alone among all aspects of the Army’s second-favorite pastime after smoking, to be unsightly.
“You know,” he said, “that’s funny, Black, because ‘Deep Respect’ is actually our name for one of our things she makes me do.”
He adopted an athletic stance and prepared an expressive tableau.
“I sort of get her by the legs right here, and—”
“Why don’t I print your thing.”
“Suit yourself, bud. Deep Respect’s good stuff, though. Works every time.”
Black did not ask and tried not to wonder what “works” meant. He called up Derr’s records and printed off his most recent Leave and Earnings Statement. He observed that, as fellow first lieutenants, he and Derr made precisely the same amount of money. Who should be more offended by that?
“Here’s your L. E. S., man.”
He handed it over.
Derr turned to go, then stopped and thumbed at the paper on the desk.
“And I’m telling you, dude. Don’t do it.”
Black sighed. He finally bit.
“Why not, Derr?”
“Because you think you got hosed. You think the Army fucked you over that thing.”
That thing. Black said nothing.
“Okay, so you need to fuck it back,” Derr continued, shrugging as though this were the simplest thing. “Don’t sign that paper, and don’t take it to the commander. Fuck that shit.”
Derr rotated ninety degrees left.
“Am I right, Sergeant Cousins?”
Cousins worked with Black in the “S‑1 shop,” which was Army-speak for the battalion’s administrative office, handling personnel business for the unit’s four hundred people and supervising several paperwork soldiers, none of whom were present for some reason. He reclined heavily behind his desk with his feet up and his nose down in a men’s magazine.
“Mmm, you got it, sir.”
He didn’t look up. Black was searching for something else dry or snide to say to Derr when it occurred to him that, coming from a guy like Derr considered himself to be, to a guy like he believed Black to be, this was pretty generous and friendly advice.
“You got it, bud,” Derr said graciously.
He wove his way through desks and makeshift workstations toward the makeshift door.
“Take it easy, Sergeant Cousins. Gotta go fight and stuff.”
Cousins turned a page. Derr called over his shoulder.
“Don’t take no Deep Respect from the Army, Black.”
He chuckled at his own wit and fired another clean shot through his spit bottle opening, which while walking was actually a good trick.
“Nothin’ but net,” he told himself happily as the plywood door clattered shut behind him.
The office was quiet again. Black resumed staring at the paper on his desk. Cousins tossed his magazine aside and turned a balding head and gentle eyes on Black.
“You know, sir, far be it from me to agree with anything that Lieutenant Derr says, but he’s kind of right.”
Black just stared at the paper.
“I mean, you got your own opinion of things, so don’t let the Army tell you what’s what. You tell them.”
“How does not signing this help me tell the Army?”
“Gotta show up to stand up, L. T.”
L. T. The Army nickname for lieutenants, the most junior and least experienced of officers.
It came from the way the rank was abbreviated in writing: capital L, capital T. Some sergeant sometime in prehistory thought it was funny to spell it out loud and address his green platoon leader that way instead of “sir” or “ma’am.”
Over the years it evolved. Sometimes it was a term of familiarity or affection, of something approaching respect. Sometimes it was just a way to avoid having to say “sir” to some college kid who had been in the Army for about a fifth of the amount of time you had but was in charge of you because he had been anointed as an officer.
Black was reasonably sure that where Cousins was concerned, it was more or less the former. Cousins considered him a worthy project.
“Thanks, Sergeant Cousins.”
“Got your back, sir. Now come on, let’s get some chow.”
Chow was a frequent topic of conversation in the office. Cousins pushed back and eased himself to his feet.
Black checked his watch and told Cousins he’d meet him there in a minute. Cousins gave a Suit yourself shrug and strolled out.
Alone in the office, Black sat with the pen in his hand, hovering over the memo, for a long time before he finally put point to paper and scratched out his name. He put the memo into a manila envelope and sealed it, setting it on the desktop. He looked at it a long moment and left.
Outside, the air was cool. An easy fall breeze cut across the front of the temporary office shack where he and Cousins and the paperwork soldiers spent their days sitting and doing paper and talking about food. He cut left, though he knew Cousins had cut right.
The gravel network weaved its way between shipping containers, little prefab housing units, Porta-Potties, generator trailers, and all the tidy detritus of the American army deployed overseas. Soon he was walking on bare ground, climbing the dirt slope of a man-made hill.
It was probably sixty feet high, standing solitary above the rest of the base. The top had been bulldozered flat and across its surface sprouted a crowded collection of antennas, transmitting dishes, and all manner of electronic communications gear. They called it Radio Hill.
He turned at the top and had a sweeping view of Forward Operating Base Omaha. His “fob.” His home.
It was as dreary and flat, aside from the hill he was standing on, as every large fob in Afghanistan was dreary and flat. Like most others, it had grown in fits and starts as military needs changed over time. From above, its hodgepodge nature was clear to see, with different “neighborhoods” and working areas identifiable by the different types of temporary buildings and construction materials.
He walked around to the far side of the antenna cluster to see what he’d come to see. Radio Hill was close to the edge of the FOB.
One of Afghanistan’s great eastern plains spread before him. Brown grass and scrub rolled gently to the horizon. Beyond that rose the great dark mountain massifs of the Nuristan branch of the Hindu Kush.
Black came to Radio Hill nearly every evening to watch the sun go down behind them, watch the shafts cut across their summits and the valley entrances fill with shadow.
The mountains were where most of the fighting that FOB Omaha supported took place. Oh, there were the usual mortar attacks on the base itself from time to time. But those were bands of jokers, paid small change to lob some shells from a safe distance and keep the Americans on their toes.
The real-deal guys, the guys who fondly remembered the brief heady days when the law of an angry god was the law of the land and who wanted to make it so again, the guys with the forces and planning ability and networks to do it—those guys were in the mountains. The hills at the edge of the plain were where people like Derr spent their weeks, trading steel barbs.
Other units went deeper, and the fighting got worse. A smaller number of thrill-seeking Americans more or less lived in those mountains, far up the deadly ridges and valleys in tiny outposts at the limits of Omaha’s lifelines.
Those soldiers fought every day. Fought for their lives, for the tiny patches of ground they had staked out. They might spend a year in Afghanistan and only see the FOB once or twice.
That’s who the antennas on Radio Hill were for talking to.
Not directly, but through a series of retransmission hubs perched strategically on ridges and peaks like signal fires, bringing the signals over the summits and across the valleys until they found the little huddled enclaves of American life. Black would stand and imagine the invisible network, its tenuous threads running from where he stood, out through the air over the plain and beyond the horizon, and wonder what was happening at those outposts at that moment.
One thing he could tell with certainty from atop Radio Hill was that there would be rain in those uplands tonight. Lots of it. A roiling block of thunderheads gathered over the peaks across the whole range. Some soldiers would be having some sucky guard shifts in some sucky mountain locales.
The sun had gone down fully. Black headed back down and trudged a half mile to the “dining facility.” The chow hall. He wasn’t hungry but figured he needed to eat.
It was one of the largest and newest buildings on the base. Steel exterior beams and stylish aluminum temp‑to‑perm exterior walls and adornments. A first-time visitor seeing it from the outside could have been forgiven for mistaking it for a college campus athletics center.
Black marveled every time at the bacchanalian foodstravaganza inside. It was run by a major defense contractor, and it would have made the most well-appointed hospital cafeteria in America blush.
Wings and burgers and steaks. Fries nightly. Entrees upon entrees. Buttered vegetables in steam trays. Grill‑to‑order station. Banks of refrigerator cases stocked with sodas and sports drinks. Sandwich bar. Salad bar. Pasta bar. Ice cream bar with thirty-two flavors. Soft-serve machine. Cookie piles. Selection of cakes. Four times a day, including Midnight Chow, every day. If you lived on the FOB, as Black did, it was now entirely possible to get fat while deployed to war.
There it was. He’d been moving through the tray line when he heard it. The voice came from the exit line passing by in the opposite direction a few feet away.
He didn’t turn or look up. Didn’t have to. He knew the voice—knew most of the individual voices that periodically harassed him as he went about his business on the FOB. He knew which name he would have seen on the uniform next to the lieutenant’s or captain’s rank had he bothered to look up.
So he didn’t look up, and the owner of the voice didn’t expect him to. It was more of an obligatory ritual by now. He’d grown used to it in the months since he came to Omaha. Almost numb to it, he told himself.
“That’s right, shitbag,” said the voice, from behind him now, receding toward the exit. “See you next time.
Black got his food and went to a table in one of the big building’s distant corners. He didn’t find Cousins and didn’t try. He knew Cousins didn’t really mind anyway. He sat alone and read a mystery novel about a maladjusted Los Angeles detective named after a Renaissance painter who specialized in scenes of earthly sin and eternal damnation.
He peered over the top of it from time to time, watching the spectacle. Hordes of soldiers lined the cafeteria tables beneath stark fluorescents, scarfing chow. Sports highlight reels traded places with Department of Defense commercials on plasma screens bolted below the rafters. Wall posters spoke of LEADERSHIP and DETERMINATION, accomplished through rock climbing or catamaran driving, or told 1940s-era recruits that Uncle Sam needed them.
Soon, orange and brown vines of crepe paper would encircle the rafters and the walls would fill up with the paper cutouts of turkeys, pilgrims, and cornucopias that he remembered from Thanksgiving time at elementary school. The feast—four feasts, really—on that day would be unbelievable.
“FOBbits” was the Army term for soldiers who spend their whole deployments living on the fob , working in air-conditioned little office spaces and eating chow and rarely venturing outside the base. It was a term Black had once used himself, before he became one.
It was dark when he emerged into the cooling night. Passing under an aluminum awning he heard another voice calling him. This one he didn’t recognize.
“Excuse me there, sir.”
He turned and saw the rank. He stopped, glaring.
Sergeant major is the highest of the enlisted ranks. Sergeants’ sergeants, in for life.
A favorite sergeant major project is squaring away young lieutenants, whom they generally view as bumbling embarrassments to the officer corps. Black didn’t know this one, but he looked the part. Short, stocky, fiftyish, square chin, mouth a grim line.
“Well, sir, if you don’t mind, you’re just a little crooked here. . . .”
Black’s own hand slapped hard over his own American flag patch at just the instant he heard the tearing sound of the Velcro coming up. The sergeant major’s iron finger and thumb were momentarily caught beneath his palm. The man’s eyes went wide.
“I do mind, Sergeant Major.”
Black turned and stalked off into the dark, leaving the flabbergasted old soldier with his mouth hanging open.
That was dumb.
The guy would find out what unit Black was in. A sergeant major can find out anything. He would tell the story like Black had struck him, which was basically as bad as punching out a general.
He ignored the voice from behind him. Some other sergeant who saw the thing, no doubt, coming to do a citizen’s arrest on a lieutenant who’d violated the cardinal rule of always kissing a sergeant major’s ass.
Heavy hand on his shoulder. He windmilled it off him and spun around in the dark, hands up and ready to shove.
“GET THE FU—”
Cousins. Standing there wide-eyed in the dark, his face confusion.
Black felt himself deflate. He said nothing. Just turned around and walked away.
“Sorry, Sergeant Cousins,” he mumbled as he disappeared between a row of generators and shipping containers.
He didn’t stop walking until he got back to the S‑1 shop, didn’t stop to talk to the couple of S‑1 soldiers who greeted him along the way—didn’t respond to their “evening, L.T.” or return their salutes.
He didn’t stop as he weaved his way through the desks and swept up the manila envelope, already on his way back out the door.
Didn’t even stop, really, as he knocked on his commander’s door, two temporary buildings over. Didn’t wait for the inevitable “Come!” but just strode through as he knocked, envelope clutched in his hand.
Lieutenant Colonel Gayley, the battalion commander, responsible for the lives and welfare of the unit’s four hundred soldiers, barely looked up from the papers on his desk. He was busy signing something.
“Oh, Lieutenant Black. Good. Sergeant Cousins found you.”
“Here, have a seat. I’ve got something for you.”
He gestured offhandedly at one of the two chairs permanently stationed before his desk. Every commander in the Army had two chairs before his desk. He rooted among his stacks.
“Okay, here we go.”
Gayley located a packet of papers, which he began skimming.
“This is the thing.”
“You’re not going to like it.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Valley
"The Valley is an acid-rock infused thriller, a police procedural camouflaged in a mind job."
—The Los Angeles Review of Books
"A military thriller packed with action and mystery...a must-read if you want a glimpse of the turmoil Americans faced in Afghanistan or if you just want a page-flipping good yarn."
"John Renehan's The Valley is both a gripping, tightly-wound mystery as well as a sharply observed look at the complex internal politics of the U.S. Army, the deterioration of men tasked with too vague a mission and too little support, and what happens when they trifle with the intricate power structures deep in the mountains of Afghanistan."
—Phil Klay, New York Times bestselling author of Redeployment
"John Renehan's The Valley is an absorbing novel of war that refuses to give easy answers or wallow in sentimental hero-worship. His characters talk the way real soldiers do, and he perfectly captures both the intensity of deployment and the blurred morality that can develop in remote outposts, under fire, far from home and family. The Valley belongs among the great novels of America’s 21st century wars."
—Kayla Williams, author of Love My Rifle More Than You
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An enigmatic mystery wrapped in a war story. The author masterfully conveys what it is like to be in the Army in a modern war. From the artificial normalcy of a secure base camp, to the baffling insanity in the middle of a hot war zone, the descriptions are spot on. The images of men under fire in combat, are powerful enough to take your breath away. It all starts as another annoying assignment for First Lieutenant Black, who is stuck in an office in secure base Omaha. But it turns out this assignment will take him into the field for a couple of days. He has to track down the facts surrounding a minor incident involving a run in between an Army patrol and some civilians. Warning shots were fired and a goat was killed. A goat. Surely this wouldn’t take long to investigate, but it did happen in the Valley. Not just any valley, but the Valley. The location is the farthest outpost of our troops, smack on the border of the country. Ops people consider it the Wild West. A lonely outpost in hostile territory, far from help. What could possibly go wrong? Everything! This book provided for review by the well read folks at Dutton Books.
A story that captures the reader and doesn't release him until the very end. More than a war story.