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Characters in Search of An Exit

books and culture

Characters in Search of An Exit

A gritty new novel dramatizes the human toll of America’s longest war. December 21, 2018
Arts and Culture

And the Whole Mountain Burned, by Ray McPadden (Center Street, 288 pp., $26)

And the Whole Mountain Burned—a novel about our war in Afghanistan—tracks the adventures of Sergeant Nick Burch, Private Danny Shane, and their platoon on its hunt for “the Egyptian,” an antagonist as elusive as Moby Dick. In their quest, Burch and Shane encounter a soul-buying soldier, a local witch whose magic packs a powerful bite, and pagan cultists devoted to an orange rabbit. The characters speak in jargon (“mailbird,” “every swinging dick,” “drop your cocks and grab your socks”) that marks one as part of the military for readers and as, at least when indulged in to overuse, one trying to fit in to the point of caricature for those in uniform. Ultimately, they come across as Americans thrust into an alien environment.

Afghanistan’s native folkways, weather, and terrain strike the novel’s American characters as dreary and inhospitable. “Jesus, this place is a drag,” Private Shane explains. “I wish we could fight in a place where the natives weren’t so uptight. We should start a war in Brazil.” Shane, the proud beau of a stripper girlfriend, fights a long way from home.

Imagining Afghani culture as American civilization in embryo is a dangerous illusion. An officer’s notion that the Americans would defeat the enemy by imposing our model of civilization seems as quixotic as the hunt for the Egyptian. The Afghans devote themselves to their civilization, the Americans to theirs—and never the twain shall meet.

The culture clash is most pronounced in the combatants’ attitude toward life and war. “Think about life back home,” Sergeant Burch implores. “It’s a desperate little drama, ain’t it? Eating right, exercising, running our kids around, and watering the grass. You see everyone scurrying, trying to drag it out as long as they can. They embrace the fads and get ready for their fucking half marathons. It’s like baby cows running from the wolves—all panicky and not very fast. Once you stop trying to live forever, it all opens up.”

Burch juxtaposes the American way with the Afghan way, seeing the former as maladaptive to combat life. “The Afghans don’t see it the way we do,” he explains. “They eat dirt and rocks and grow up in war. They don’t hang on to life so hard, because it’s pointless. They just don’t expect so much, right from the start. If you go into a fight that way, it makes you a monster. Now I see things the way they do, and I’m shooting lightning from my fingertips.” 

The fog of war becomes the fog of peace when impromptu truces emerge. Former allies seamlessly morph into enemies. The agendas of tribal warlords working alongside the Americans often clash or only tangentially mesh with those of their U.S. partners. Americans look to achieve military objectives; their local allies seek to settle scores. Ultimately, the Americans go native. Tasks initially undertaken for strategic purposes eventually become personal, tribal, and marinated in vengeance.

With its nuanced language, And the Whole Mountain Burned transcends a genre that can easily become formulaic. McPadden creates colorful characters, and his plotting captivates the reader. You want to know what happens to these characters—especially the character present in his absence, the Egyptian. The book paints a drab landscape in bold colors, and its suspenseful pace holds up.  

A subtle theme of the book shows well-intentioned people hurting their own cause. Burch rescues Sadboy, an Afghan kid inured to the explosions surrounding him; Sadboy grows up to battle Burch. When the Americans call in for air support, an A-10 obliterates a main character. Does McPadden see this kind of folly as a metaphor for the war? More than 17 years after America entered Afghanistan, American troops remain there. And the book’s epilogue suggests that many Americans who left the country long ago remain there, too.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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