I’m still trying to collect my thoughts on what I think of Alpha Mike Foxtrot by John L. Sheppard. It struck a chord with me, and the echoes of that haven’t quieted right away. They just reverberate, getting softer but not entirely fading. I just keep turning the book over and over in my mind.
I can say for sure that it seems very unlike most of the other books I’ve read where a character returns to civilian life from the military. The protagonist (Joe Dugan), of course, has been through terrible things:
I killed a man one day on a street crowded with angry, hungry people and us with not so much food. I picked the man out at random, him and his shrieking ungrateful face, and I shot him. Ka-pop. It was not cool.
You sure know how to end a riot, Dugan, said a second lieutenant right after I’d zapped the dude.
Check your theory book, page 19, second paragraph, sir, I said, not looking at him, all alpha-male-like, my hands shaking, as people screamed and ran away from me, down the heat-and-dust-clogged street.
Har-dee-har-har, he went.
He was recognized for bravery by the army during his service time, credited with saving lives, but he can’t really take much from that. After all, he can’t stop thinking of:
…how many of those soldiers that I was supposed to have saved later died.
Three of them.
And some of the others were missing legs and arms. One didn’t have a fucking nose anymore, though that’s apparently replaceable thanks to the wonders of science and/or engineering. I saw most of my troopers every day at Walter Reed much later on. Many of them were trying to figure out how to get back into combat.
In any case, returning home isn’t like what you might expect. For one thing, Joe joined the military in the first place to run from an abandoning father, a mentally ill twin, a mother who glossed over it all, and that sort of thing. It doesn’t help that now his twin is spending much of his time in an asylum and his mother is dying of cancer.
Instead of going back to all that, he walks off from the military in the same way that he walked away from his broken family. He winds up somewhere, finds a crap job, and falls for a girl. Of course, the girl is already with the guy who picked Joe up hitchhiking:
An ample girl came bounding out of the front door. She was short with unnaturally black hair that spun out of her head every which way, possibly shoulder-length hair, soft-fuzzy springs of hair. She wore sandals and a peasant dress and big round glasses that made her face seem rounder than it was. She was so beautiful that it almost hurt to look at her.
I hopped out of the van and stretched. She ran around the other side of the van. I watched through the passenger’s and driver’s side windows as she kissed Kenny, her boyfriend I guessed correctly. Kenny walked her back around, his hand clenching hers, to meet me.
Still, these things all seem all right when compared to the things he’s left behind. It’s all a matter of degree, right? Joe just keeps going from there, living.
A lot of what Joe experiences is reported in a matter of fact kind of way. It isn’t callous, but he appears to go to a lot of effort not to dwell–to keep moving. He almost seems numbed by everything he has experienced. However, this isn’t actually true. No matter how much he tries to keep it all pushed down, his emotion bursts forth from time to time like the shrapnel fragments still buried in his skin. I mean this as much for Joe as I do for me as a reader.
I’m still sorting out what all I feel about Alpha Mike Foxtrot. It isn’t simple and neither is my reaction to reading it. Regardless, it’s a book that is sticking with me. I think it’ll stick with me for a while, and stick with a lot of people in the same way. You should check it out and see if you agree.