Last year, I went to a talk given by writer Tim O’Brien at the University of Mary Washington, (kudos again to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library for bringing O’Brien to town) and I was struck by his resentment that people thanked him for his service in the Army. O’Brien was drafted and made it clear that he never wanted to serve or fight in Vietnam. Conversely, author Elliot Ackerman served five tours of duty with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. My intention is not to disparage either man for their choices, (or in O’Brien’s case, not having a choice) but, in my mind, they are connected as great writers whose writing has been influenced by their time in fields of fire.
Ackerman’s last novel, “Waiting for Eden,” is a “war” novel that’s truly haunting and as bleak as anything you will ever read. His newest, “Red Dress In Black and White,” is not a war novel, but there is still a bleakness at its core which may be inevitable when a marriage begins to fade like the one that Murat and Catherine have tried to prop up for a number of years.
Murat comes from gentry in Turkey and meets Catherine while attending college in the U.S. They fall in love (much out of convenience or a silly desire to play grown-up) and Catherine moves to Turkey to be Murat’s wife. The pressures of Murat’s job as a building designer and developer, however, keep him from the home fires and, when he is home, unable to perform. So they adopt a son. Years later, Catherine has an affair with Peter, an American ex-pat artist, and the tension between husband, wife and boyfriend is what underscores “Red Dress in Black and White.”
The affair, similar to the marriage, is peculiar in that it does not seem to have much gravitas or investment by the parties, except for Catherine, who pines for an escape and possible return to the U.S. What elevates the tale is Ackerman’s writing, as in this passage soon after Catherine meets Peter.
“None of us see ourselves as others see us. If only we could. Our vision of ourselves is like our voice. The world hears us one way, but inside our head our voice sounds entirely different. There’s no possibility of recording that voice, of sharing it with anyone. We go our whole lives without another person ever hearing us the way we hear ourselves.”
I often wonder about the choices that Elliot Ackerman has made in his life, but I hope he continues to provide glimpses into those choices through his fiction. Even if it’s not necessarily as he hears himself.