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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Clashes by Night

At the onset of war a pastor prepares to address his congregation. Though many novels end with the outbreak of war (War and Peace, From Here to Eternity), and many more deal with the time leading up to war (and then go on to treat the effects of that war on the characters), I can think of no novels that actually begin on the very first day of war.

Two reasons why this may be so occur to me. The first is that, since wars are cataclysmic, climactic events, it makes more sense for a novel to end with the outbreak of war than to start with it. The second is that, while the ends of wars tend to be clearly demarcated by treaty signings, unless prompted by singular events like the attacks on Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center, their precise starting points can be harder to pinpoint and are often only made clear to the general public historically, in retrospect.

Still, it's an intriguing conceit, and well-handled here, with the description of the priest/narrator putting on his vestments closely observed ("I run my finger between [my collar] and my neck to relieve the chafing") and well-integrated with his internal ruminations ("What are [the members of my congregation] thinking? That soon we will greet Spring as though nothing has changed?").

Some of these musings are too obvious ("If only that were true. I wish. I wish."), while others seem out of place—specifically his dwelling on the taunts he endured as a shy child, and his concern that his priestly garments make him feel feminine. That a man of the cloth would routinely harbor such thoughts is unlikely; that he would do so on this of all mornings is bizarre. At the very least such reflections should be provoked by specific stimuli and not come unbidden.

That said, owing mostly to the attention given to his clerical garments, the portrait of a priest that emerges here is more convincing than not. But that portrait is marred by less-than-perfect handling of time and tense. The first sentence is problematic. If the war started "today," when when—relative to that starting point—does the present-tense monologue occur? If "dawn is clouding," then the day itself has just started, in which case when did the priest and his congregants get the news? Were they up at two a.m. watching the news of TV? If so, something might be said to that effect. Anyway the war started before dawn, so it would be more accurate to say, "The war started early this morning." It's not as brisk a sentence, true. But it's less confusing.

In the same first paragraph, a few sentences later, the author shifts accidentally from present to past tense ("I had always imagined . . .").

Still, despite these technical errors, I'm curious to hear what this preacher will say to his flock, and more than that to learn if and how his faith will hold up under the assaults and insults of war. One thing's for sure: in a story that starts with the first bombs of war, two outcomes exist: either things will get worse, or they'll get much, much worse.


  1. Peter--

    Thank you for your carefully considered comments. I find them especially useful coming from a source which does not know me and therefore has no need to shade an honest critique.

    CLASHES BY NIGHT is about a priest named Thomas DeCordiva, and the war is the war in Iraq, which started in March 2003. Since the U.S. government had a countdown, the time and date of the start of the war can be precisely noted. For purposes of the first line, I have changed the start date from March 19 to the following Sunday, and the start time to be the pre-dawn hours--thus allowing me to say "The war started today."

    I thought about the issues of timing that you had mentioned, but finally decided to trust the reader to conclude as you did. So I chose to exchange explicitness for tone.

    Since I never actually mention Iraq (which also gives me some latitude about timing), and put the war in the background, my goal is to gradually pull the reader away from the specifics of a real war, with its charged politics, and place him into the fiction that is my story.

    In writing about the character of Thomas I wrestled with portraying his humanity, his faults and especially his vanity, which has a touch of narcissism. It would be nice to imagine that a man of the cloth would not consider himself so much the first day of a war, but I think of it this way:

    1. The 2003 war in Iraq was an example of national cognitive dissonance--the country embarked on the most serious endeavor possible--spending money and lives in a war--yet in many ways the war was barely visible to most of us, except on television where it became a video game. For most of us our lives were largely unaffected. So I portrayed Thomas as embodying this same paradox.

    2. Priests are human, too, and subject to all the weaknesses that humans have. One might think that priests would not engage in sexual abuse, drinking and gambling, but they do, even as they administer the sacraments. So a mild vanity is one of Thomas' faults, although he struggles to look to something greater at the same time. On this first page he puts on his vestments as though donning armor, and I seek to walk a fine line between Thomas the priest as a figure of respect and Thomas the man with his share of foibles.

  2. I suggest you refer to the Iraq war more overtly, not by name but through clear clues (the missile strikes seen on TV at three a.m.--the "video game" war); otherwise, you risk coming across vague or coy.

  3. Peter,

    Thank you for your suggestions. I understand the burdens and limitations placed on a single (first!) page, and in fact, do write about missile strikes on TV on the second page, and throughout the novel add other explicit details without mentioning the Iraq war directly. My intent is to walk the fine line between specificity and generality--the war in Iraq vs. the effect of all war on people and families.