The Strong ManBooks
Publication date: January 2010
Press: Publication Studio Portland
An Army Reservist, Ben Wallace, is a reluctant member of the U.S. Army Reserve. Yet, when he is called to duty in Operation Desert Shield, he realizes he wants to experience what his grandfather calls, “The Enlightenment of War.” He initially joined the Army as a form of rebellion against his father—a Vietnam era draft dodger—and as a way to be closer to his grandfather. His grandfather is a veteran of Guam. Wallace needs to experience combat, he thinks, to make himself a man.
Several things make this unlikely. Wallace is, first of all, a Laboratory Technician in a General Hospital. Second of all, every aspect of modern warfare isolates the soldiers from the discomforts and realities of the conflict. They have comfortable uniforms made from hi-tech microfibers, access to phones to call home at any time, rations designed by master chefs.
Wallace also becomes entangled in the schemes of a profiteering sergeant, Philip Mice. Mice needs Wallace, for his physical strength, to defeat a rival sergeant and to manage the enlisted men while Mice establishes a business trading in contraband. When the hospital arrives in Saudi Arabia, Mice sets up a thriving trade in homebrewed beer, used furniture, and bacon. The trade deals in comfort items designed to alleviate what little discomfort that remains among the soldiers. When Wallace and Mice and finally dispose of the rival sergeant, Wallace realizes Mice will never arrange for Wallace’s transfer to a field hospital near the front lines as long as he remains useful to him. When Wallace threatens to turn himself over to the MPs, Mice quickly transfers Wallace to a field hospital. Following the First Infantry’s advance on Basra, Wallace encounters his first surrendered Iraqis. The persistent unreality of the American Army’s war begins to slip away. When he faces the remains of retreating Iraqi soldiers destroyed on the highway to Basra, he finally experiences “The Enlightenment of War,” even though at this point he would rather remain unenlightened.
The Strong Man is one hell of a book. Matt Briggs writes about both going to war, and coming home, and the ways in which, for some of us, war and home seem oddly merged these days, the way we make war now. This story is populated with characters who matter and whose lives will touch you. A fine piece of work from a very talented writer.
— Robert Bausch, author of Out of Season and The Gypsy Man
Matt Briggs shows us the realities of the “new war” that started with the Gulf War. In clear, strong prose he takes us deep into the truth of that forgotten, almost invisible, but tragic war.
— Tom Paine, author of The Pearl of Kuwait and Scar Vegas
What does Ben Wallace do when uncontrollable events happen to him? He gets stronger. Ben’s girlfriend is pregnant and he is called up from the reserves to go to war in this vivid, compelling, and enlightening second novel from Matt Briggs. Ben desperately wants to fight in a war “to experience something that would transform me into something else.” He is exploited by Sergeant Mice (in a relationship similar to Lennie and George from Of Mice and Men) because of his physical strength. Ben lives his life according to ideas or myths, which include war, family, the desert, and what it means to be a man in America. The Strong Man shows what’s behind these myths, “Like most things, when I thought too much about them, I didn’t know what they were: mango juice that was mostly apple juice, leather that was mostly plastic, and cheese that was mostly wax.”
— Laurie Blauner, author of All This Could Be Yours and Infinite Kindness
“Matt Briggs looks back at the good war”, Summer Karaskova, Pilot Books Blog, Dec 4, 2010
I donʼt want to know anything about a book before I read it. Not how the story starts, who the characters are, or what critics think. I donʼt read the back or cover flaps. And if I can help it, Iʼd rather not know the authorʼs name or even the title.
Kind of extreme, but it works for me.
The Strong Man, a new novel by Matt Briggs, was one I started under the worst possible conditions. Not only do I know the authorʼs name, I heard a full synopsis of the plot at his book release. But I started reading anyway. Probably because the novel addresses one of my favorite topics: moral complicity.
Now it has me by the eyeballs.
The Strong Man is a fictionalized memoir(1) about young manʼs military tour in the Gulf War. The leading man, Wallace, is called in from the U.S. Army Reserves and makes the best of it by seeking what he calls “The Enlightenment of War.”
Like Briggs, Wallace participates in a gratuitously destructive act without much personal investment or even awareness. At the book release, Briggs called this out as his fundamental crisis. And it is fundamental. Simple, central to American life, and so commonplace itʼs almost boring.
But then, we get bored with everything pretty quickly these days, even our own conscience.
By screening Werner Herzogʼs Lessons of Darkness and interviewing Charles Mudede at the book release, Briggs set a political tone for his audience. He aimed the book at everyone who feels a sense of entitlement, guilt, or anxiety about modern life – so pretty much everyone – and wrote a guileless character who should appeal to everyone, too.
This might be my one criticism of the book so far.
Wallace is almost too simple. His dorky restaurant job. His community college student status. His love of routine. Even his reaction to his girlfriendʼs pregnancy. (“Iʼm going to be a dad!”) The whole thing feels calibrated to create the perfect patsy.
Easy to dupe. Easy to forgive.
Or maybe Briggs, as a writer, doesnʼt let the reader deep enough into the only-mostly-fictional characterʼs psychological sanctum. Maybe Briggs wants to remember the best about himself and his own redemptive ignorance. I donʼt know. Iʼve never been to war. Iʼve never been asked to face my own complicity as directly, however remote from combat Briggs and his character remain(ed).
Again during the book release, Briggs admitted he thought the book was largely irrelevant now that warfareʼs reached new levels of abstraction. I think the author was being too modest. Battlefields and bombardment-style conflict might be replaced by anti-terrorism. The enemy mightʼve gone underground – or vanished or become all of us everywhere all the time – but military rhetoric/marketing hasnʼt changed much.
Service. Heroism. Paid education.
Motivations for entering the army havenʼt necessarily kept up with shifts in global warfare and the utility of armed forces. The Strong Man finds its relevance in depicting this lag with clarity, some humor, and the wisdom of hindsight.
- The author might strongly disagree with the term “memoir,” but if A Million Little Pieces retains its genre status on Wikipedia, I think this should count, too.
Review and Links
When Briggs is working at maximum power, as he is for much of The Strong Man, [his] abruptness and sparseness make the tragedy into something hilarious. — Paul Constant — The Stranger, 1/12/2011
Briggs has a keen eye for detail, whether it’s a line of Douglas firs at Fort Lewis or the anachronistic scent of beer being brewed in a Saudi Arabian hospital. He isn’t afraid to write moral ambiguity. Wallace is neither hero nor villain — more than anything, he’s malleable and not too bright. As such, Briggs has created a character that reflects our uncertain, narcissistic, post-Cold War age. — Katie Schneider, The Oregonian, 12/4/2010
The Strong Man, a new novel by Matt Briggs, was one I started under the worst possible conditions. Not only do I know the author’s name, I heard a full synopsis of the plot at his book release. But I started reading anyway. Probably because the novel addresses one of my favorite topics: moral complicity. Now it has me by the eyeballs. — Summer Robinson, Pilot Books Blog, 12/5/2010
Briggs is brilliant in his moments that address the removal of the human element from modern warfare, the commonplace absurdities of set-piece battles. — Charles Dodd White, 12/29/2010