Battle Rattle, by Brandon Davis Jennings. Seattle, Washington: Amazon Publishing, April 2016. $2.99, Kindle Single.
What Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead is to Operation Desert Storm, Brandon Davis Jennings’ Battle Rattle is to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both books are a meditation on the experience of what it’s like to live through the thick smoke of war, while at the same time contemplating the disconnected alienness of returning to a home you no longer recognize. The novella Battle Rattle picks up where Jennings’ first book Waiting for the Enemy, a collection of short stories that won Iron Horse Literary Review’s Chapbook Competition, leaves off. Like Swofford’s, Jennings’ simple prose reads as stripped down and blunt as bleached bones baking in the desert sun. Throughout his two chapbooks, Jennings takes the reader through the stages of an Air Force Ranger’s austere existence from training, to fighting in the desert, to the boredom of waiting, to coming home on leave.
In the opening chapter of Battle Rattle, the narrator, Derrick Vezcheck, tells us about his army buddy Rake, who had just broken his back when trying to sit at the desk in his home office while dead drunk, highlighting the banality and randomness of both war and peace. You can spend an entire tour of duty clearing houses, dodging snipers and engaging in firefights without so much as a scratch and then break your back in your own home while trying to plug in your computer mouse. It’s an accident that’s mentioned in passing in the title story of Jennings’ previous book, Waiting for the Enemy. Jennings’ narratives tend to be as circular and roundabout as human memory, starting in the middle, moving back to the beginning and then advancing towards an ending, often returning to the same moments again and again.
Echoing the stupidity and inanity of war, all of Vezcheck’s friends die in stupid ways off the battlefield rather than dying heroically in combat. Another episode Jennings and his characters return to repeatedly is when Vez’s fellow soldier Cammack gets blown to pieces while checking on a villager’s wife in a house next to an abandoned naval mine. All the while, the neighborhood kids are chucking rocks at the mine, trying to see what it will take to get it to explode. Anyone with a shred of sense would try to stay as far away from such a scene as possible, but Cammack has too heroic of an idea of what it means to be in the U.S. Armed Forces and always wants to do the right thing. As a result, the other men in the Humvee end up picking up pieces of his scalp off of the ground in a matter of minutes. While Rake and Vez do their best to shrug off Cammack’s death, it’s an image that sticks forever in their minds, as it sticks in ours.
As if in a dream, the perspectives of Jennings’ stories often change from character to character. When we first hear about the incident of Cammack and the naval mine it’s from Vez’s point of view in Jennings’ story “Bosnian Roulette” in his collection Waiting for the Enemy. The story ends in a very different way than it does when we hear about it from Rake’s point of view in the following story “Boots.” In Vez’s take, we don’t even know Cammack is blown up, as Vez tries to reconstruct his memory of the events into something less horrific and more hopeful, continuing on the mission as if Cammack was still alive. Rake on the other hand was standing right in front of Cammack as he’s blown apart and couldn’t look away if he tried. We don’t find out until later in Battle Rattle, that Vez stayed in the Humvee with the other men, while Rake accompanied Cammack to the villager’s house. Because of this, Rake is much more affected by Cammack’s death than the other men and as a result, it manifests itself stateside as a profound case of P.T.S.D., which takes an enormous toll on him.
Also like Swofford, Jennings never tries too hard to make his characters likeable. Vez cheats on his wife with his friend’s wife, he gets into bar fights and does stupid shit. But deep down there is always a moral center to him. A telling episode is when Rake and Vez parachute into a deserted airport in the middle of the desert. As they’re waiting at the control tower for the rest of their team to arrive, a camel stumbles down a sand dune and gets its legs caught in a patch of razor wire. It’s too wrapped up in the wire to escape and Rake and Vez can’t reach it to cut it free, because there’s a chain-link fence in between them. While Vez’s first response is to shoot the camel in the head and put the poor beast out of its misery, Rake’s first response is to torture it first by blowing off one of its legs at the knee, showing how much the war has already warped his sense of humanity. It’s a chilling scene that you can’t quite stomach, and yet can’t quite look away.
After they return home from their latest deployment, Vez and Rake try to lose themselves in alcohol and violence, but instead they begin to lose everyone else around them. Rake’s wife Taylor leaves him time and time again, unable to cope with all of his fighting and drinking when he’s home, and with his long absences when he’s deployed. Luckily for Vez, his wife Kaylynn has more patience for his absences than Taylor does for Rake’s. But one thing Kaylynn doesn’t have any patience for is putting up with his bullshit. When Vez returns home, he seems unable to communicate with his family or strangers in anything other than drunken aggression. When he sees a fellow dad at his daughter’s ballet class sniffing around his wife, his first instinct is to pummel him into oblivion.
But what Vez really wants is to pummel himself into oblivion. Every day he’s on leave, Vez goes into his garage where he pounds on a heavy bag until his knuckles bleed and then drinks himself into a stupor. Vez used to say he didn’t believe in P.T.S.D. until Rake came down with a bad case of it, but it’s obvious to anyone familiar with the disorder that Vez has it in spades, too. The main question throughout Battle Rattle is if Vez will ever be able to shake off the after effects of war and settle down in a normal civilian life. Unfortunately for those looking for closure, it’s a question that’s left open ended, like so many questions in life. In a fitting ending to the book, we leave off just as Vez is about to be deployed into the desert once again in an endless cycle of war and psychosis. Jennings’ writing is some of the best we’ve had yet about what it takes for a man to survive modern warfare in the Middle East and at home. We need more stories about the experiences of these veterans to continue the national conversation on how we treat our soldiers both during and after wartime. Battle Rattle is a valuable entry into the war-prose cannon and we can only hope that Jennings keeps writing.
Eric Andrew Newman currently lives in Los Angeles with his partner and their dog, but is originally from the Chicago area. He works as a librarian for a nonprofit foundation by day and as a writer of fiction and nonfiction by night. Recently, he has been named as a finalist for the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest and the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarter After Eight, Hunger Mountain, and Necessary Fiction. He is at work on his first collection of short stories.