“Breakfast With the Dirt Cult” is a sad novel. It’s also frequently funny.
It’s a better read than some of the others that I’ve read, like “Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green.” The author, Samuel Finlay, is a reader of mine, and was kind enough to send a copy. Many reviewers have remarked that the Afghan and Iraqi wars have spawned far fewer novels as compared to some of those further in the past.
Part of the reason for that is contained within this novel: the people who fought the war are more alienated from the rest of society as compared to war-fighters in Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. They’re a minority who endure what was once a formative experience for American men, something that they all had in common.
The narrator, Tom Walton, takes up the bulk of the plot. What’s going on with him internally tends to be more important than what’s going on around him. He’s a loner:
On his first trip to New York City, he had developed the habit of carrying around a newspaper, and since then it had become one of his personal SOP’s when by himself in a city. It was something lightweight to pretend to read so that he didn’t look pathetic when he stopped somewhere alone.
Before he’s deployed to Afghanistan, the specialist Walton falls in love with a Canadian stripper, whose fondness keeps him going during some of the more difficult times in war.
One of the themes running through the observations is that women tend not to treat their Army men terribly well. Whereas Vietnam vets groused about Dear John letters, modern soldiers have to handle their lovers sending them amateur porn breakup videos.
Observations of the differences between Americans and the Afghans pop up from time to time:
Haji hadn’t been tamped. He’d kept his traditions and culture. He’d kept his fucking identity. His village and his tribe meant the world to him, and he defied all comers to remain the sovereign lord over his domain. If you would have told him about things like Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage, global civil society, or liberal intergovernmentalism, he’d have been pissed off for having his time wasted on such bullshit. He might have even shot you for it if he really felt like showing his nuts.
It’s not exactly a political or anti-war novel. Where there are criticisms, it’s of the people in the media and those involved in planning the war, who are much more insane than even the screwed-up proles that make up the enlisted men.
“Show of force and askin’ questions. A bunch of bullshit,” Sergeant Bronson murmured over a cigarette. “Some of the Hajis have a case of the ass over the new constitution. These people don’t realize theri constitution fuckin’ sucks anyway ’cause the motherfuckers who wrote it don’t go out to where all the Hajis stand by the side of the road and shoot at each other just for fun.
In the end, an old-timer diagnoses the main problem with the modern Army:
The sergeant had sighed wearily, then readjusted his BDU soft cap so that it rested in a more relaxed position. After staring sadly at them for a moment, as though looking into the future, he’d said, “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.”
Some of the marketing copy about the novel being about ‘coming of age’ and the ‘horrors of war,’ I didn’t get. The main character, Walton, seems to enjoy the war part of things a lot. It’s like a high-octane version of the Boy Scouts. He gets shot at on mountains, has to cross rivers, and hikes around a lot.
The part that is unbearable is the peace, and being treated like garbage by women, along with living in a culture that’s insane. That part is what’s harder for the main character than having friends die and being shot at. The nihilistic sexual politics are what drives him over the edge, traumatizes him, much more than the war does.
The war part is straightforward by comparison — even when getting shot, it mostly makes sense, at the lower level.