As the self-appointed SOFLETE literary critic and grouchy librarian, I have harangued you all to read David Joy and Larry Brown’s books on multiple occasions. You should read David Joy because he’s actively working to keep alive a style of literature I happen to enjoy, because he’s generous with advice for a certain Marine and aspiring writer y’all may know, and because he exemplifies the #DieLiving mantra pretty damn well. You should read Larry Brown because he’s the author that exposed me to that style of literature I happen to enjoy a lot and he definitely #DiedLiving. Those remain standing recommendations, but once you’ve exhausted that canon, what’s next?
Well, the good news is great writers are putting out great work every month. The bad news is neither my brain nor my wallet can keep up. Regardless, I decided to kick you some suggestions once in a while in what I hope the boys at HQ will allow me to turn into a semi-recurrent effort. So here’s five books you should read right now, why you ought to read them, and who will most like them.
1. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock
The Heavenly Table is the most wholly enjoyable book I’ve read by Donald Ray Pollock, a guy who I sometimes think is daring me to keep reading just to see if I have the stones for it. Pollock is the kind of writer I most admire; a regular human with an amazing talent he had to fight to share with the world. Pollock was born in 1954 in Knockemstiff, Ohio, dropped out of high school, and subsequently lived his entire life in Chillicothe, Ohio. Like Larry Brown working as a full time fireman, Pollock worked as a laborer and truck driver at a paper mill for thirty-four years. He was fifty when he enrolled at Ohio State University in 2004, ultimately completing a Bachelor in English and a Master of Fine Arts. In 2008, he wrote a short story collection called Knockemstiff and then a novel called The Devil All the Time. They are both relentless in their violence and the varying levels of depravity and desperation of their characters. Frankly, at times, I had to put The Devil All the Time down and go find some sunshine. But there is art and a blood stained beauty in Pollock’s depiction of lawmen and criminals, prostitutes and preachers, killers and martyrs. It’s like the remnants of animal slaughter after a righteous hunt. It is messy and foul in some ways but it will feed your family and make you stronger. Pollock understands the essence of humanity at the visceral level of our instincts.
So why read The Heavenly Table over his first two works? Frankly, because it is not as unrelentingly dark (though if unrelentingly dark is your thing, have at it). To be sure, as in his previous works, there are all manner of debauched humans. Set in 1917, as America prepares to enter The Great War, the main characters are three brothers. Cane, the oldest, is the gang leader; Cob is the middle brother, a basically kind brute who has some mental difficulties; and Chimney, the youngest who is decidedly the most morally conflicted character. When their father meets his end on their sharecropper farm “in that sliver of border land that divides Georgia from Alabama”, they decide that a turn of the century, Quentin Tarantino style, rampage is their best way to move up in the world. Their travels, and travails, bring them into contact with a host of interesting characters and shed light on both the complexity and banality of the good and evil that make up mankind.
Who will like Donald Ray Pollock? Certainly Cormac McCarthy fans. If you liked Blood Meridian or The Road you’re a member of the target audience. If you like Coen Brother movies, or the aforementioned Quentin Tarantino, you’re in there. I suspect that even if you’re of a more literary bent, a fan of writers like Flannery O’Connor or Erskine Caldwell, this is for you. Regardless, this is the real world, illuminated by its extremes. Read it…if you have the stones.
2. Red Platoon by Clint Romesha
I have found no indications that Mr. Romesha had a ghost writer assist him with this book, which is at least part of what makes this book so damned compelling to me. That Mr. Romesha has enough mastery of the use of language to craft what might be the best first person, tactical level, narrative I’ve ever read while also being the kind of soldier who performed at a level that results in an award of the Medal of Honor is incredibly unique. Red Platoon is, to my mind, the single best “there I was” book I have ever read. Then Staff Sergeant Romesha describes the battle of COP Keating, a tiny outpost in Nuristan, that should probably never have been built. From a military perspective, it was almost indefensible, literally and figuratively. But in 2009, population-centric Counterinsurgency theory (COIN) was still the flavor of the day and COP Keating afforded US forces a position from which to maintain some connection with the local populace and hopefully interdict insurgent movement in one of Afghanistan’s most remote provinces. Jake Tapper’s The Outpost, due out as a film next year, covered the battle of COP Keating pretty thoroughly but Red Platoon offers an incredibly detailed account that will be by turns sobering, depressing, and incredibly inspiring.
Eight soldiers died, two Medals of Honor were awarded, and aspects of national policy came into question as a result of one fourteen-hour firefight. Romesha recounts it all with humility, honesty, and a genuinely lyrical ability to use the language. He describes well the bonds and petty bickering that occur amongst men under stress and in close quarters. He describes the bravery and cowardice that are equally present under fire, sometimes in the same man. His combat descriptions are unrelenting and frankly, at times surprisingly graphic. I think that’s important for America to read while I simultaneously worry about the families of the fallen being exposed to the ugly reality of their loved one’s last moments. Combat isn’t clean and the deaths that accompany it are ugly and painful and often foul. Romesha gifts readers, and honors the fallen, with that truth.
Anyone considering military service, especially combat arms service, should read Red Platoon. Young service members, especially soldiers and Marines, will get a lot from it. Company grade officers and staff non-commissioned officers will get good insights into the men and women they lead. More senior officers should read Red Platoon as a reminder of realities that may have faded in the fullness of time. But more than that, average Americans should read this to understand what has been asked of, and done in their name by servicemembers since 2001.
3. Donnybrook by Frank Bill
This will be a weird thing to say in a book recommendation list: I didn’t love Frank Bill’s Donnybrook. But I liked it enough to recommend it (and will read the author’s other works) and I think it will quickly find fans in the Die Living community, especially with the February 2019 release of the film based upon it. I watched some YouTube interviews with Frank Bill. He likes to lift heavy, run ultra-marathons, is inspired by the same authors as I, and listens to the same bands I do. That was enough to grab my interest and convince me to read Donnybrook; Bill’s comment on masculinity, poverty, and desperation in parts of north Kentucky and south Indiana, a region he knows because he still lives and works as a forklift operator there (again, shades of Pollock and Brown). The characters in Donnybrook are consistently violent, profane, and perverse. They know their backs are against the wall and their outlooks are correspondingly bleak. One says,
“We got no jobs, no money, no power, no nothin', nothin' to live for 'cept vice and indulgence. That's how they control us. But it's falling apart. What we got is our land and our machines, our families and our ability to protect it all, to keep them alive. We got our hands. Ones who'll survive will be the ones can live from the land. Can wield a gun. Those folks'll fight for what little they've got. They'll surprise the criminals with their own savagery. Man, woman, and child will be tested. Others'll be too weak and scared. Uneducated in common sense. Won't know what's happened. But believe me, war is coming.”
The violence of Donnybrook is uncompromising. That should probably be expected in a novel about people en route to a three day long, bare knuckle, survivor takes all fight contest called “the Donnybrook” where rounds of twenty men pay $1000 to savagely beat each other until only one is left standing. On the third day the individual winners fight for a $100,000 purse.
The book is populated by characters fueled almost entirely by avarice, lust, revenge, and methamphetamine. The two main characters are Chainsaw Angus, a legendary brawler turned meth addict and dealer, so named because he is permanently scarred after he took a chainsaw to the face, and Jarhead Johnny Earl, a talented local fighter with decency hiding beneath his desperate need to take care of his wife and two children. The story moves fast. In way I felt like I was clinging to a log in a rushing river, with scenes of sometimes almost absurd levels of violence acting like the rocks in the river that a reader bumps against, gets turned around a few times, and pushed off to the next obstacle.
People looking for social commentary served with Chuck Palahniuk style mayhem will like it. People who appreciate an artistic turn of a phrase will appreciate Bill’s use of the language, though like Cormac McCarthy (who is obviously a huge influence on Frank Bill), I sometimes found myself re-reading a paragraph to make sure I understood who did what in order to leave a character with a crushed larynx or on fire. Donnybrook is so far out on the edge of literary normalcy that even someone who is just here for the violence will find what they’re looking for. Give it a shot.
4. Fields of Fire by James Webb
James Webb exemplifies the Die Living ethos. Any one of his accomplishments would suffice for most people; US Naval Academy and Georgetown Law graduate, Marine Infantry Officer who commanded a company in Vietnam receiving the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart in the process, distinguished journalist and author, Secretary of the Navy, and a U.S. Senator from Virginia to name just some. Fields of Fire is the first book he wrote, while recovering from injuries received in combat and attending law school. I expect a lot of folks have already read Fields of Fire, but in a way I hope not so I can turn more people on to it. The book is about to experience it’s 40th Anniversary and anyone interested in combat and the nature of men within it will appreciate it. Though a novel vice a history, any student of the Vietnam War should read Fields of Fire.
Fields of Fire tells the tale of a Marine rifle platoon in the An Hoa basin through the eyes of its platoon commander, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee Hodges, a Harvard dropout called “Senator” Goodrich, and a squad leader called “Snake”. We know Snake’s first name is Ronnie but never learn his full name. I think that creates some of the psychological distance, driven by the individual personnel replacement cycle, that characterized infantry combat in Vietnam. We know Snake is the guy we need to follow to survive, but we don’t even know his full name. Fields of Fire gets flak for not being as literary as his later works, but as a twenty-four-year Marine, I say the brutal, simpler, perhaps more stripped-down prose is perfect for the subject matter; a group of young men trying to survive and do their duty in the particularly filthy and brutal existence offered by infantry combat.
If you’ve read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, you’ll find similarity because Marlantes owes a debt to Webb. Another similar book is Body Count by William Turner Huggett which actually preceded Fields of Fire by five years but gets a lot less attention. Regardless, if you want a solid novel, it works. If you want to understand platoon level combat in Vietnam, it works. If you want an examination of the way war twists morality and forces people in directions they never expected to go, it works. Like Red Platoon above, it is a good book for anyone interested in serving in the infantry or anyone interested in history of warfare. But ultimately, it works as a novel as well and that opens the audience pretty dramatically. I read it annually from ninth grade till I commissioned. I think it’s time to crack it open again.
5. On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides
Simply put, this is the best military history I’ve read in a long time. On Desperate Ground details events around the Chosin Reservoir from November 27 to December 13 December, in which 30,000 United Nations troops, primarily Marines of the 1st Marine Division, were encircled by 120,000 Chinese with orders to destroy them in detail. Commanded by Major General O.P Smith, UN forces broke out of the trap and made a fighting withdrawal to the port of Hungnam, killing piles of Chinese troops along the way.
Sides chooses to describe events at all levels of war to give a comprehensive understanding of the events. To me, it’s the book’s accessibility and readability that makes this book particularly valuable given the breadth of things already written about Chosin. He narrates the issues between nations as adeptly as he describes hand to hand combat in the frozen hills around the reservoir. There is enough of all kinds of writing to satisfy everyone from a serious student of military history to someone looking for a “there I was” story for and airplane ride. My only complaint is that I would have liked more Regimental Combat Team 31, the US Army unit that fought on the east side of the reservoir. RCT 31 has been scapegoated by some historians, but subsequent investigation reveals that the unit called Task Force Faith (after Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith who took command and was subsequently killed in action, receiving the Medal of Honor for his bravery) held off an enemy that vastly outnumbered them and was a major contributor to the ability of the 1st Marine Division to break out.
If you are a student of history, fascinated by human endurance, or just looking to learn something, On Dangerous Ground is a great read. It left me wanting to read more about Maj Gen Smith because Sides’ characterization of him made him fascinating to me. Any book that drives you to another is worth the time.
Reading is like doing deadlifts for your brain, it makes your intellectual core stronger. Timothy Bates and Stuart Ritchie, researchers at Edinburgh University, followed more than 17,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales over 50 years and empirically demonstrated that "Children with higher reading and maths skills ended up having higher incomes, better housing and more professional roles in adulthood." Reading is something you can do for you, purely to serve your own purposes. Read and grow strong.
Russell Worth Parker is a career Marine Corps Special Operations Officer. He likes barely making the cut-offs in ultra-marathon events, sport eating, and complaining about losing the genetic lottery. He is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and graduate of the University of Colorado, the Florida State University College of Law and the Masters in Conflict Management and Resolution Program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Special Operations Command, the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.