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Flashes of War

Katey Schultz

Apprentice House/Loyola University, Maryland
172 Pages

A disclaimer: I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of reviewing a book of short stories about war. I’ve read many War Stories, truth and fiction, good and bad, old and new, and I am by now pretty much “over it.” And War Stories by someone who’s never been to war? A first book of War Stories? A hard sell.

And so I opened Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War with a sigh of resignation and a tinge of resentment.

And I didn’t close it until I finished.

Katey Schultz has an actor’s ability to slip into the skin of her character. This gives her stories the texture of authenticity. If I were a more recent veteran, perhaps I could find the odd note that doesn’t fit with the real-life experience—but I’m not, and she convinces me that she knows the truth of the worlds she travels.

These worlds are far-flung and complicated, and her reach is ambitious. She inhabits soldiers and military families, Afghanis and Iraqis, women and men, and she does it deftly. There are occasional awkward moments—for example, “Into Pure Bronze,” the story of two boys playing soccer in Kabul Stadium, feels somewhat timid and overthought to me—but these are rare; overall, I felt she got the anger, confusion, crassness and despair of her characters right in the human sense, the sense that matters in storytelling. By doing this, she reveals a truth beyond literality.

Schultz’s shortest stories are clear, economical and profound. A soldier’s ambivalence about the mission  (“Pressin’ the Flesh”), an Afghan woman’s bitterness amid the destruction of her city (“With the Burqa”), the sadism of a training sergeant (“I Told Them”), the cacophonic stew of family, culture and gender in wartime Afghanistan (“Sima Couldn’t Remember”)—all this and more comes through in small, brilliant…well, yes: flashes. Schultz doesn’t preach; she gives her characters the pulpit through their thoughts and actions. I feel these flash pieces are phenomenal, the most affecting stories in the collection.

That’s not to say that Schultz’s longer works aren’t worthy literature. One of my favorite stories, “The Ghost of Sanchez,” runs eleven-and-a-half pages. Another even longer piece, “The Quiet Kind,” is laced with insight about the cost of war to the spirit of the warrior. For example: “He hikes a little further and considers shooting the squirrels but decides against it. He never liked killing. Until joining the Army, he never realized that what a man believes could be so far from what a man does.”

This is fine writing, unraveling complexity by teasing out a string here, then another, examining each as a simple thought, statement, deed. Flashes of War is not a perfect book, but it is a damned good collection, never mind first collection, and it is too enjoyable to be condemned to a genre as dreary as War Stories.

These are People Stories. Read them.



Copyright 2013 Susan O'Neill