In the tradition of Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, Matthew Eck’s new novel, The Farther Shore [Milkweed Editions], is a tight, thought-provoking war novel based on Eck’s own experiences as a soldier in the Somalia and Haiti conflicts of 1993. It is the story of Joshua Stantz, a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division, and his unit, who are left to fend for themselves amongst local warlords as monsoon season approaches. The novel is a sharp debut by a distinctive new voice in American writing.
The tone of the book is striking, because the main character is detached, but not desensitized, as one imagines a soldier must become in order to survive on a distant continent where death is easier to come by than clean water and field rations. The details, though bare-knuckled and grim, are never overt. Eck uses a balance of short, stark declarative sentences and vivid description to build tension in each chapter, which keeps the story moving at a good pace:
“Outside one village we’d seen a dead body. It was impossible to determine whether the corpse was male or female through the cloak of bees and hornets that covered it. I’d never seen such a thing. As we moved among the villages, our Humvees kicked up so much dust that it never seemed to settle. Great flocks of birds shifted and turned as one on the wind, cutting down into the dust of our wake” (7).
Eck’s approach to storytelling keeps the reader close, almost over the shoulder of Stantz and what remains of his unit. The reader comes to know these characters through poignant action and dialog. When monsoon season sets in, and the men are stranded in an abandoned caboose, the dialog shows how the psychological state of Stantz’s fellow soldiers takes a turn for the worse:
“He turned back to the ocean. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘Children.’
I couldn’t hear anything but the rain.
I wanted to tell him it was all right. I wanted to tell him how easy it was to hear things out there. Angels, devils, whole armies passing by, a helicopter’s rotor blades smacking at the waves and desert just out of reach, or everyone you ever loved moving past in a procession” (125).
The Farther Shore is a well-crafted, vital new book. The novel is a brief, yet rich, portrait of a less-than-successful mission, and every reader concerned with beautifully executed fiction should read this book. Joshua Stantz has joined rank with Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, and Matthew Eck has become part of a classic and relevant literary tradition. *** The Farther Shore is the winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize ($22.00).