John Renehan’s The Valley, one of a trio of books recently released by various authors about experiences in the war in Afghanistan, is surprising. I tend not to read too many reviews before I read a book or see a movie, so I didn’t expect the story to turn into a detective story, of sorts. And a helluva confusing one, at that. I’m still not sure I completely understand it, even after the supposed scene in which the reader is told the magic behind the investigator’s deduction — a la the end of every serial TV crime drama or Sherlock Holmes’ story. Granted, Renehan covers this up well in his cryptic, complicated discussion at the end. An ending not quite as surefooted as the much of the rest of the book, I’d argue.
I’ve never read a war story that explains the military and its lingo in such an unassuming, natural manner. It is very useful for the civilian reader, doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story as if it were an intruding glossary entry and can serve readers well in the real world and when reading other war-related literature. Renehan should be read and applauded if only for this.
Unfortunately, this attention to detail — possibly a product of military training that stresses such — becomes a problem for me when he continues his descriptions of the interior of the combat outpost after the first time. He wants to map for us the interior of the COP, as if we’re going to visit some day and will need to know how to get around. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of over-describing subjects. (This explains the excruciating pain I felt when I read American Psycho.) Without such lengthy descriptions, some volume but no substance would be lost, if edited judiciously. The COP is a maze — as are the relationships among its residents. We get it.
And, again, as most of the Afghanistan war books have ultimately expressed, it’s our lack of knowledge of the place, its inhabitants, their relationships that portends the failure of the American expedition to promote democracy/end the Taliban in Afghanistan. That maze of relationships — especially when American soldiers are thrown into the mix with local tribes, drug lords and the Taliban — could have been focused on a bit more than it is in the book. I think Renehan’s not addressing that more may lead to some of the confusion and blankness at the end of the book.
Overall, I highly recommend this novel. Its faults are merely personal taste issues, I think.
At bottom, what’s interesting, is that all these novels and short story collections have the same conclusion: the disconnect between Americans and Afghans — our complete lack of knowledge of their culture (some of it, like the accepted raping of young boys, abhorrent) and, especially, tribal interactions and structures — is losing, or lost, the war. Our soldiers have returned from this maze of a war that, ultimately, defies logic and becomes absurd through Americans’ lack of desire, and, thus, inability, to understand what is going on there.
No wonder they return so raw. They’ve pierced the thin veneer of civilization. They’ve seen what people can truly be, and they’ve been told it’s okay not to understand it. Just make it home to three types of Cheerios.
A parting thought: Maybe what we need is a good detective to figure out Afghanistan for us.