The first chapter of John L. Sheppard’s latest novel Alpha Mike Foxtrot (Paragraph Line Books) drops us into the world of Joe Dugan, who, at 24, has been in the U.S. Army “a while” and is sick of talking about it: “At Walter Reed, that’s all we did. We sat around in folding chairs talking about the war until it died in our mouths.”
Honorably discharged but still within the Army’s reach, Dugan is determined not to be called back to duty, and plans to disappear. Throwing away his Army-issued plane ticket home, he sets out from Washington, D.C., on foot, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
Almost immediately, Dugan is given a ride:
The driver announced himself as Kenny and told me he was going to Chicago. His soppy hair was all over the place, his skin like onion paper. He looked like a heroin addict who’d time-traveled in from 1972.
Dugan is a raw nerve of a protagonist, blessed with a sharp eye and mordant wit. But he is also at the mercy of his thoughts, emotions, and dreams, which are ravaged by horrific combat memories and visitations from the dead.
B2L2’s John Hicks recently interviewed the Chicago-based author of Small Town Punk via the magic of the internet, which connects us all, amen.
JOHN HICKS: Alpha Mike Foxtrot doesn’t sidestep any issues about the human costs of war. On the other hand, I found it to be quite funny at times, which is a difficult trick to pull off. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Gustav Hasford’s woefully under-appreciated The Short-Timers, the primary source for Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam outing, Full Metal Jacket, come to mind.
JOHN L. SHEPPARD: Unlike Joe Dugan, I never saw combat. But being in the Army, you wonder about combat all the time, and practice it frequently, mostly to no ill-effect—though a shocking number of soldiers died during big exercises like REFORGER. A lot of field exercises involve vast stretches of time sitting in a slit trench with nothing to do but contemplate your mortality. You sit in the trench with your battle buddy and discuss the many ways it is possible for the Army to kill you, from getting fragged to falling out of the back of a deuce-and-a-half onto the back of your egg-fragile head. Or maybe the Army fucks up your annual flu shot somehow and you end up accidentally dying from an Army-manufactured plague. Considering the variety of ways the Army fucked up on a regular basis, this last one seemed like a real possibility. See “BRADLEY FIGHTING VEHICLE” for more information.
On AFN, instead of real commercials during TV shows, you’d see Army commercials telling you, for instance, that all that it takes to drown is two teaspoons of water. For illustration, the video shows you, in the most literal manner possible, two teaspoons of water. Naturally, you turn to the soldier next to you at that moment, wave at the TV, and say, “I see the Army’s working on its next weapons system.” And he goes, “Huh?”
My sergeants at my first posting in Germany were mostly old Vietnam War guys, with strange wounds and broken minds, who’d found in the Army a comfort in never having to think much. My first NCOIC was a former radioman whose physical wound was a burn scar that went down his back. A Vietcong sniper had shot the battery of his Prick 77 radio, which was strapped to his back.
I had to drive him everywhere because he was no longer allowed to drive due to his alcoholism, which the Army attempted to cure him of with a six-week don’t-drink-indoctrination program in Stuttgart. The program rarely took. One time, coming out of Miesau Army Depot, we saw a sign that stated DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE. It was signed, I believe, PROVOST MARSHAL.
“There’s some valid advice for an old soldier,” I said, pointing out the sign.
“Yes, but if I gave up drinking, I couldn’t drink anymore,” the sergeant said. “I like drinking. In fact, I’ll drink to that.” And he pulled out a flask and took a hearty swig. He was drunk almost all the time. He was a happy drunk, so he made very pleasant company.
This is all to say that humor is a way of looking at the horror of our lives directly and perhaps revealing some sort of essential truth that you wouldn’t get from a straight telling of the facts. For more about this, see “TWAIN, MARK.”
JH: You’ve said that if you hadn’t become a writer, you’d still be a soldier. Why?
JLS: If I’d been born a different type of person, or had been handed a different set of circumstances, I suppose I could have stuck it out and stayed in and retired from the Army. When I joined during the Reagan era, it was an unchallenging way of life. Army regulations dictated every aspect of your life, including how far you should swing your arms while marching (as the old cadence tells us, “nine to the front and six to the rear, that’s the way we do it here”). So, if you relaxed and memorized certain things, you could spend 20 years going from posting to posting without ever having to think a single thought of your own and retire with a few stripes and one or two rockers. After that, you’d have your monthly stipend from Uncle Sugar and be free to do what you want. That post-retirement freedom was a mighty tasty looking carrot.
JH: There’s an early passage in Alpha Mike Foxtrot where Dugan recalls seeing an officer killed in Iraq by a booby-trapped rifle. It’s a horrifyingly precise description of the event:
I was about ten meters away and little pieces of metal and officer face chunks and hand bone lodged in my arms, legs, face and hands. Nothing debilitating, mind you. Body armor saved my torso and ESS goggles my eyes. The major took the brunt.
I saw a man killed, a field-grade officer, and my reaction was surprising, even to me with bone-bits of him prickling me. I thought, That was pretty cool. It took me several months to feel the horror reaction and when it came, I cringed at myself, at what I’d allowed myself to be. Become.
A little later, Dugan recounts killing an unarmed Iraqi civilian during a food riot. These brief scenes stayed with me through the rest of the book, as Dugan struggles to make sense of the past and present, to make a new life for himself. Did you have this general picture of the character in mind when you started the book, or did it evolve as you went along?
JLS: I wanted three things to happen to Dugan in combat: 1. He kills someone, unnecessarily. 2. He sees someone killed and has an odd reaction to it, one that lets him know that something inside has gone askew. 3. He performs an act that someone outside (and many inside) the Army would consider extraordinarily heroic, but that he sees as anything but, and he is awarded for it, which he considers grotesque.
I wanted him to have to figure out a way to live with all three.
In the peacetime Army, you are constantly asking yourself: Could I do it? Could I pull the trigger? The point is moot. The Army has conditioned you to do it. The real question is: After I do pull the trigger, then what?
JH: Dugan embodies the traits of a combat-hardened veteran. He’s aware of the futility of trying to convey his experience to anyone who hasn’t shared his past. On the other hand, he knows he must somehow find a way to reconnect with family and friends, and to learn to live with himself. His alienation is pronounced, but at the same time the reader is privy to his inner monologue, which is, by turns, funny, caustic and heartbreaking. It’s almost as if the most crushing part of his journey is returning home to a country that is completely oblivious to the war, to a society in decline, bloated with cheap fantasies.
JLS: I envisioned the entire book as a monologue. I imagined Dugan running across his battle buddy from basic combat training, who he hadn’t seen since then, and opening up to him. My assumption was that his battle buddy had similar experiences and that Dugan had found someone who he could finally talk to about everything.
There’s a feeling of a distorted self that I gave Dugan. There was the self he believed in and wanted to be, and there was the self that had been mangled in combat. He had to reconcile those two. I made ample use of mirrors throughout, including giving Dugan a twin brother who was a distorted version of himself. This had something to do with the Mirror Test, I’m certain.
Though President Bush didn’t simply tell us all to “go shopping” after 9/11, that was implicit in his messaging after the war began.
“I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy,” Bush said in an address to the nation on Sept. 20, 2001.
“When [the terrorists] struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear,” Bush said at a Sept. 27, 2001, speech at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. “And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
So, it was: Ignore your troubles, c’mon get happy. Charge up that credit card.
Imagine coming home to that happy horseshit after sacrificing your body and mind for your country. That’s what I tried to do with this book.
JH: Your first novel, Small Town Punk, picked up a great blurb from Sam Lipsyte: “John Sheppard gets that Reagan-era rage and humor just right. This novel is an ode to those kids at the dead-end jobs who knew that the Morning in America was really dusk at best, but had each other, a little weed, some beer, and gas.”
JLS: Small Town Punk had been gestating in my head for many years—at least two decades. I kept on threatening to write it, and friends double-dog-dared me to do so. After 9/11 happened, like many of my fellow Americans, I started to think about things that I’d left undone. Also, the tenth anniversary of my sister’s murder was coming up, and I’d envisioned the book as a tribute to her. I wrote it over a four-month period at the beginning of 2002, finishing well before my self-imposed deadline of May 27. It was originally self-published with iUniverse in April 2002 and was much longer and more in-depth than the abridged version that was released by Ig in 2007.
JH: Was it easy writing about Sarasota, Fla., where you grew up?
JLS: Sarasota was, and always has been, very easy for me to write about because I hated it with a white-hot intensity as a child/teenager: The angry retirees, the stodginess, the “city of the arts” pretension, the hate-filled cops, the oppressive heat, the way the town shut down promptly at 9 p.m…. I also loved it because of the circus people who were still around and the residual funkiness of the town that emanated from the circus people.
A now-defunct Sarasota alternative weekly voted Small Town Punk (in a year-end poll) the “Best Literary Takedown of Sarasota” in 2007. So I hope that the book is fairly accurate.
The Pizza Hut that I worked in, on the corner Bee Ridge Road and McIntosh, was torn down many years ago to make way for a CVS.
JH: Do you own a gun?
JLS: People who’ve seen the effect of guns on human bodies have one of two reactions: They either never want to ever touch a gun again, or they own an arsenal. My brother owns an arsenal. I don’t.
After graduate school, I’d tried to move to west Texas/southern New Mexico. I lived with my old Army buddy in Fort Bliss family housing (he had a wife and two kids) for about a month before giving up and driving back to Florida.
My brother had given me his old Volkswagen Jetta at the end of graduate school as a sort of graduation present, and I put approximately 3,200 miles on it for the roundtrip between Texas and Florida.
Before I left El Paso, I went to have the car checked out at an off-brand, oil-changing establishment. It was one of those places that didn’t have a waiting room. You stood next to your car while it was being worked on. The mechanic chatted with me as if he was a barber giving me a haircut. We heard a ceremony for the 50th anniversary of D-Day playing out over the radio. President Clinton was there, emoting.
A codger standing next to me said, “I was there.” He proceeded to give a startling account of fighting his way through the hedgerows in northern France.
I asked, “Has anyone thanked you today?”
“No,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
He sniffled a bit, and then shouted, choking back tears, “That fucking Clinton! He’s not going to get my guns!”
My mechanic said, “He has a lot of guns.”
“Damn right I do!” the old veteran shouted.
Shortly after that, I moved in with my brother on the east coast of Florida. I wrote junk mail. It was a soul-killing profession. I did not last long.
My brother was a dedicated alcoholic at the time. Once, I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels in the evening and came home the next day after work to find it empty. My brother had sucked it down over lunch, apparently. He was years away from hitting bottom, but it was hard to watch. I’d tell him, “Maybe you need help.”
And he’d look at me, soused out of his mind, and slur out, “I’m fine.”
Neither one of us were fine.
My brother had a recurring dream in which he was frozen outside the Pizza Hut where our sister was murdered, watching her through the window as she lay dying in a vast pool of her own blood, unable to do anything. We both had made the mistake of looking at the murder scene photos. There was a video, too, filmed from the POV of a cop walking through the murder scene with a camcorder as Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou” plays in the background.
My brother kept a shotgun in the trunk of his car and a handgun in the glove compartment. There was another gun in his briefcase. He had a concealed carry permit. He’s never had occasion to use any of these weapons, and I hope he never will.
JH: How long did you live outside the United States?
JLS: I lived in a guarded compound called Taylor Barracks near Mannheim, Germany for two years. Outside the barracks, I was an Ausländer. Being an Ausländer was interesting. Germans are still Germans, no matter how nicely you dress them up. If you think some Americans are rabidly xenophobic, you should try living in Deutschland for a while.
I had the opportunity to work with some Germans. We dressed them up in old fatigue uniforms and called them CSG’s, for Civilian Support Group. They would ask me about Reagan sometimes, as in “Why did you elect this cowboy your President?”
“Does he scare you?”
I felt like I was doubly an Ausländer, because I was not what you would call a normal soldier. I read books, for one thing. I often asked questions, for another.
So I had the opportunity to study two foreign cultures at once when I was there. At times, I felt like an anthropologist—like some sort of uniformed Margaret Mead.
I did my best to try to speak both languages—German and Army. I don’t think I could speak a lick of German today, by the way. It evaporated from my head. The Army stuck.