The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
In the century that followed the birth of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the Imperial Roman Army transformed itself into the world’s first standing army, and with it the finest professional fighting force the world had yet known. For the soldiers that stood guard on the Empire’s frontiers life wasn’t easy. Terms of service were twenty-five years. Soldiers were forbidden from marrying. Postings were remote. But the training, experience, and unit cohesion of professionalized legions ensured Rome would have no peer on the battlefield.
A Roman army that during the previous five hundred years had relied on citizen levies in times of crisis to bolster the ranks became a culture unto itself, the institution and its soldiers ever more distant from citizens at the empire’s core. Forced to fend off barbarian tribes on the periphery and push into new territory, the army found that most of the soldiers willing to endure the long terms of service and harsh conditions were rural peasants from the frontiers themselves. An army whose Italian soldiers numbered over ninety percent during Augustus’s time barely counted ten percent among their cohort a hundred years later.
Upon finishing their terms of service, the vast majority of soldiers found themselves unable to shed their outsider status. Most soldiers were forced to settle on or near the same frontiers they guarded, the land grants given upon their discharge far from Rome. Equipped with citizenship and having been exposed to Roman values, these veterans were often used as colonizers. Many times their sons would find their way into the ranks. With the exception of the aristocratic officers heading the legions, relatively few soldiers would ever visit the Italian lands from which policy, money, and culture emanated.
Two millennia on, the Roman Imperial Army has found its reflection in the United States’ armed forces. Over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has forged a professional fighting force whose excellence is unparalleled in world history. We can whisk brigades around the world in a matter of hours, supply whole armies with the creature comforts of home, and snuff out terrorists at the push of a button. But the cost of this excellence, in the form of the burdens placed on the soldiers both at war and upon their return, is compounding with each passing year.
The last ten years has not lacked for reporting and commentary on the burdens shouldered by “the other one percent” – members of the armed services and veterans – or the resultant civilian-military gap. Even casual observers of our nation’s foreign wars have likely read a piece or two in the popular press. Time devoted their cover to it a little over a year ago. Yet the journalism and opinioneering is often conducted piecemeal and on the periphery, focusing on things like repeat deployments, civilian oversight, wounded veterans, civil-military relations, and veteran suicide and unemployment. Statistics are cited. Senior officials quoted. Individuals are profiled. 60 Minutes tells the story of Clay Hunt’s suicide. Esquire finds it outrageous that the Navy SEAL who killed Bin Laden can’t find a job. Veterans are valorized and irreproachable, but at the same time held at arms length.
Conspicuously absent, though, is the very thing that is needed most: a broader debate over whether the moral cost of having a professional army continuously at war is acceptable. On this count the military, government, and society itself have answered unequivocally in the affirmative. There is no serious talk of returning to the draft. The urban and best educated among us are not choosing to join up in greater numbers (in fact, the opposite is true). War has become, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “something for other people to do.” Society has made its choice. But only now are the consequences of that choice coming home to roost.
A new collection of short fiction, Fire and Forget, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton and written by veterans (and one Army wife), stands as the best fictional account of the wars of the last decade and the contemporary military experience, and as such, is utterly damning of the devil’s bargain the nation and its military have entered into. Unlike any other book yet published, fiction or non-fiction, Fire and Forget captures the grim moral price of having a select few fight years overseas, only to return to a society that is unable to relate to their experience or sacrifice. (Full disclosure: I know some of the vets in this collection; the community of veteran writers is exceedingly small.)
Fire and Forget is not a collection of war stories in the classic sense; here combat plays only a tertiary role, if any at all, and only six of the fifteen stories even take place in Iraq or Afghanistan. The biting and brutal focus is instead more often on the soldiers’ return home, sometimes scarred, both physically and emotionally, but always changed. In Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” two maimed soldiers share a day of flyfishing as part of a program for wounded soldiers, only for one to accost a pair of teenage girls with the shocking cost of war. Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” has a veteran take a job as a streetside sign-holder in Los Angeles as he lives a “temporary,” novocained existence. And in Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips For a Smooth Transition” an army wife confronts the awkwardness of rekindling a marriage put on hold during her husband’s deployment.
On a purely aesthetic level, one is reminded in many of the stories that we are dealing with emerging writers, ones whose control of their craft is sometimes uneven. Ill-placed metaphors, clunky exposition, pacing issues, and dream sequences all rear their head. And stylistically these are a uniform bunch, with only a few slipping outside the bounds of a stripped-down realism. Yet these flaws seldom detract from what counts: the myriad truths each of these stories contain, all of which feel fresh, raw, and vital. It is a rare thing for a book to live up to its blurb, but E.L. Doctorow got it right when he called this a “necessary” collection. Much of the credit lies with the editors, whose curation, in terms of content and tone, is impeccable.
Two stories in particular stand out. Ted Janis’s “Raid” is like a panther – lean, dark, and stealthy in its import. Method matches up perfectly with material in its story of a Special Forces soldier conducting one in a seemingly endless chain of Afghanistan night raids. Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” is the masterpiece of the collection. It grabs you by the lapels with its opening line – “We shot dogs” – and by the end you’re thoroughly shaken. Klay’s tale of a soldier’s tumor-ridden dog and his Marine battalion’s return home from Iraq contains more in its thirteen pages about contemporary war and its effects on the people who fight it than anything I’ve read.
One comes away from the collection struck by the weariness and cynicism and alienation that suffuses these pages. There is nothing overtly political about any of the stories, but as a body they make a political statement: war, when waged, must be a cost borne by the nation as a whole. America has over the last decade outsourced war to its military. At a recent forum, former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McCrystal suggested reinstituting the draft because “right now, there’s a sense that if you want to go to war, you just send the military. They’re not us.” Fire and Forget reminds “us” who “they” are.
There is no easy answer to the central dilemma here. A professional army is without question more efficient and effective at maintaining security, protecting American interests, and fighting the country’s wars than an army raised for exigent circumstances. Yet during war, especially prolonged war, only through the draft does the populace as a whole have skin in the game.
Alas, this is a debate that won’t be had. The war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. In two years time the army will take leave of the frontiers and return to its garrisons. Left in its wake will be a generation of veterans bearing the scars of war who will stand apart from the peers, theirs an experience limited to a self-selecting few. Like the Roman soldiers before them, many joined for a job, others out of patriotism, but all to serve their country.
Jill Lepore, writing in the New Yorker a few months ago, pressed home the fact that the United States was founded on opposition to a standing army. A citizen army, the reasoning went, composed from the whole swath of society and raised only in times of duress would be less likely to be wielded as a tyrannical instrument, both at home and abroad, since the whole society would bear the cost of its wielding. But conscript armies, while potent for fighting large-scale wars, are less efficacious when policing the world.
As Augustus comprehended in the aftermath of the Roman Civil Wars, the geopolitical reality required new methods if he was to be successful. For two centuries his professional legions stood guard on the hinterlands, fighting wars both just and unjust, protecting a citizenry that knew little of their sacrifice. The United States crossed the Rubicon in 1973 when it converted the military to a professional force; but only now, in the aftermath of exhausting war, has the moral price of that decision become evident. We have created a caste of warriors – one but apart, taxed but unbroken – to insulate us from the storms of the world. Such are the costs of Empire.
I finally finished my piece about Frank O’Hara. It’s good, but of course it’s not good enough. It makes me want to write pieces about all my friends before they die. It’s so awful to have to say someone was this or was that. As opposed to is. Because was is so final. I mean, it carries too much authority.
—Joe Brainard to Ron Padgett, October 1969
When the artist Joe Brainard died of AIDS-related pneumonia on May 25, 1994, he hadn’t put on an exhibition of new work in nearly 15 years. He had barely made anything in that time, only a few covers for friends’ chapbooks and occasional collaborative projects. It was enough for this once-lauded collagist and painter to nearly drop from the public view, and Brainard’s closest friends, particularly the poet Ron Padgett, who met him in the first grade, began rectifying that situation immediately. Since the mid-1990s, Brainard’s most noteworthy prose collection, I Remember, has come back into print; his work was the subject of a long article in ArtForum and multiple retrospective exhibitions in New York and elsewhere; and Padgett published a hybrid biography and memoir, Joe, in 2004.
A new collection from the Library of America, The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, is the latest and most assertive effort in the quest for the man’s canonization. At first glance it looks overly familiar. Edited by Padgett, it comes accompanied by blurbs from some of the same friends who blurbed Joe, including Edmund White and John Ashbery. It reprints many letters and journal entries that appeared in Padgett’s earlier book. And the same cast of characters — Anne Waldman, Kenward Elmslie, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan — are all here once more, vacationing in Vermont, giving group readings, and pairing up for strange little one-off collaborations. Brainard had his first solo show in 1964 and was more or less retired by 1981, which means that his friends have now spent as many years commemorating the man’s art as he spent making it. Both Joe and The Collected Writings are filled with diary jottings and journal entries, meaning the day-to-day comings and goings of Joe Brainard have now been documented almost as scrupulously as Samuel Pepys’. Even though he was a central figure in one of the most vibrant periods in New York artistic history, the repetitiveness of these panegyrics ironically begs the question of whether Brainard was really all that important to begin with. Since the man’s biggest boosters are all people who knew him intimately, I couldn’t help wondering whether the work could still speak for itself. Perhaps you had to be there.
But then I opened the book, and found that to read Joe Brainard is to befriend him. I’ll leave it to his loved ones to make the case for his near-holiness, as Edmund White did in a 1997 essay, “Saint Joe”; I think his work’s greatest assets are its casualness and humor. The Collected Writings is like a manual for how to live more creatively. It bubbles over with deeply personal vision and a contagious passion for the smallest things in life — what Brainard calls “my faith that everything is interesting, sooner or later.”
The Collected Writings of course opens with I Remember, the simplicity of which still beggars belief more than 40 years after it was published. It’s literally 134 pages of free-floating statements all beginning with the title phrase. And don’t be misled by the fact that Brainard grew up gay in less-than-enlightened Tulsa, Okla., in the 1950s, or that he lived through Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement — nearly all of his remembrances are about food, personal hygiene, sexual fantasies, and ritualistic tactile experiences. The observations aren’t grouped chronologically or substantively, though sometimes a memory-association game appears to play out in real time:
I remember that my father scratched his balls a lot.
I remember very thin belts.
I remember James Dean in his red nylon jacket.
I remember thinking how embarrassing it must be for men in Scotland to have to wear skirts.
I remember when Scotch tape wasn’t very transparent.
Brainard manages to concoct a deeply personal autobiography without ever really revealing anything about his life. His father barely appears beyond that one sentence, and no other family members come up even that often. There are no insinuations that Brainard’s childhood was uniquely difficult; he’s an American boy through and through, his mind ingrained with brand names and the initiations of pre-adulthood: “I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent. Up on a hill. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. With Ron Padgett.”
He was born in Arkansas and moved to New York when he was only 18, but Tulsa arguably had the biggest effect on Brainard’s personal sensibility. Even his charmingly flat prose style sounds like the prairie looks, a distillation of the region that fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie described as “Peace, pretty weather. Spring turning things green. Summer staining it all brown.” In a letter to Padgett from 1965, Brainard explained, “I find myself with a certain talent that Frank O’Hara has, and that is to say something quite simple so absolutely that one, without even thinking, assumes you are of course right.”
In his own book, Padgett claims that Brainard’s confidence and talent were obvious from a very early age. The two boys formally met in high school, and even founded a literary magazine, The White Dove Review, that published work by Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones. (They knew Ted Berrigan, eight years their senior, while he was still teaching in Tulsa at the time.) Nevertheless, it’s clear that Brainard needed to leave Oklahoma in order to find the personal comfort and self-awareness that informed his art.
Brainard first left to go to art school in Dayton, Ohio, but he dropped out after only a few months. He then went to New York, where Padgett was studying at Columbia. He shared an apartment with Berrigan, subsisted on an alarmingly small diet, got the occasional cash gift from back home, and generally experienced the quintessential starving-artist lifestyle. He also had his first significant sexual experiences and finally came to accept his homosexuality. Many of his new friends — O’Hara, Ashbery, Elmslie, Joe LeSueur — were the first openly gay people he knew, to say nothing of their being committed to artistic careers. These men and the other artists he met, including Anne Waldman and Kenneth Koch, surely inspired Brainard to pursue his own idiosyncratic artwork, which never settled into a single medium or style. He created a constantly evolving jumble of collages, nature paintings, cartoons, sketches, book covers, portraits, and sculptures. He was similarly prolific and resistant to classification in his prose work, but it was all, as he put it in the wonderful mixed-media Bolinas Journal, “this ‘trying to be honest’ kind of writing.”
His New York friends were the first people that inspired him to be so honest, and the first people to celebrate the work that resulted from that honesty. In a 1977 interview with Tim Dlugoss, quoted in Joe, Brainard insists,
I had no intentions of being a writer. Everything was against me. I had no vocabulary. I can’t spell. I’m inarticulate. I have sort of learned to use that. But this happened because all my friends are writers. I wrote a short story, the first thing I remember writing, and I showed it to Ted [Berrigan] and he said, “It’s very good.” So I kept at it.
He experienced a joyful, if belated, reconnection with his younger brother, John, who came to New York in 1976 and found a box of Brainard’s autobiographical writings in his apartment. The two became very close, bonding over their shared secret of the older brother’s homosexuality. But so far as Joe and The Collected Writings convey, his parents never learned the truth about Brainard’s personal life while he lived.
Brainard had a couple great romances, particularly with Kenward Elmslie, whose house in Calais, Vt., was a cherished retreat for their New York crowd. But Ron Padgett was the only person who watched Brainard’s transition from shy, skinny teenage Okie to accomplished, beloved artist. More importantly, Padgett watched his friend evolve as a man. His tone in Joe is nearly befuddled, like he still, 10 years after the death of a person he knew for four decades, can’t quite believe that he had the good fortune to know the guy at all:
His draftsmanship had a magical effect on me. Watching him draw always elicited a pleasant tingling in the back of my head and down my neck, as if someone were gently tickling me, and I would start to feel drowsy, like a child drifting off into an afternoon nap…When I look at Joe’s best drawings…[m]y eyes are experiencing something too happy for thinking, and somewhere inside me there is an onrush of gratitude, for once again I feel as if I am in touch with how amazing and beautiful the world looks.
Padgett writes that Brainard possessed a “seemingly natural ability to say the most perceptive things in the simplest way,” and a “gentle manner.” He was “kind, generous, loving, and compassionate,” with a “spirit [that] moved continually toward honesty, openness, and clarity.” He had the qualities, in other words, that reveal themselves most fully to close acquaintances and deepen over time. Padgett and Brainard’s relationship encompassed years of personal and artistic turmoil and triumph. They reinvented themselves, Brainard most dramatically, by seeking and finding a vibrant artistic community far away from home. They watched each other’s work grow and their most important relationships blossom. Padgett had a child in the late 1960s with his wife Pat, who was nearly as close to Brainard as her husband was. Brainard was ever-present for little Wayne’s childhood, acting as a combination surrogate parent and older brother. Padgett’s book is not simply a case for an undervalued artist; it required years of archive-searching and interviews, all in the service of commemorating an inspiring personality that Padgett witnessed in its youth, maturity, and early death. Joe is a record of profound fraternal devotion, one that The Collected Writings brings to a presumable close.
The two books beg to be read together, since Padgett’s adoration is even more powerful in light of Brainard’s obvious love for intimacy and friendly communication. Even the journals that he presumably didn’t intend to publish are addressed to an unidentified “you.” He often worries about boring this phantom reader or about being too self-indulgent. It’s an unfair criticism, since even his most mundane and “uninteresting” pieces are funny, short, and utterly charming. His work performs the same magic act that all good memoir does, achieving such individual specificity that it becomes universal. In his journal on March 27, 1973, Brainard writes,
Reading Isherwood — I am thinking about the difference — the possibility of the difference — of writing about yourself as “me” as opposed to “a human being.” And I suspect that yes, there is a difference. And that, tho I pretend to write about “me,” I am secretly more aware of myself (writing-wise) as “a human being.” And that this may well be my salvation!
As I write this, there’s a wedding invitation from two dear friends perched on my desk. John and Mollie will say their vows in May at John’s family farm, where our group of friends all grew close during high school. Another wedding, for friends I’ve known nearly as long, will take place after Labor Day. As my friend Ian quipped two summers ago, we’re in the thick part of the bell curve as far as these big adjustments are concerned. People are moving and settling down all at once. Meaningful decisions are getting made, kids are being born — the concrete is drying all around us. With hindsight, this may end up looking like a particularly active and meaningful chapter in our friendships, even though we see each other less and less. A few of my closest friends will meet my 10-month-old son for the first time at these upcoming weddings. Others will see my five-year-old daughter for the first time in years. These are people whose music I’ve been hearing since before I could drive, people who are now scattered across California, Chicago, New York, and Utah but who I knew when they were still pimply. The emotional vertigo of watching them play with my kids has yet to wear off.
I’ll admit that Joe’s procession of mundane details often bored me early on. But when I think about one of these friends dying young, Ron Padgett’s compulsive attention to Joe Brainard’s short life seems only appropriate. I can barely remember key details of relationships that have lasted a third as long as theirs did. Joe and The Collected Writings were like cold splashes of water to my face, reminders to pay more attention to the people who somehow manage to remain in my life despite mutual changes in geography, careers, and interests. It’s not pure narcissism that animates Brainard’s obsession with sex and food and friends and other ostensible non-literary banalities — it’s his ongoing attempt to find meaning and beauty in every moment he can.
The Collected Writings is above all a welcome document of a sui generis talent. Brainard was a colloquially profound writer who in the same journal entry (August 29, 1967) could write, “One thing about me, I really am a nice person. At least I think I am,” as well as, “You know what I’d like to have? I’d like to have a giant dick,” without ever coming off as self-absorbed. But the book is also a testimony. It’s another thank-you note from a grateful man who can’t believe how lucky he was to meet the right guy in 10th grade. We all have relationships like this, and Ron Padgett has done us a dual service: he’s resuscitated an accomplished career, and given us two guidebooks for how to be more appreciative and loving friends.