The Farther Shore
By Matthew Eck
Milkweed Editions, 2008
Reviewed by John Palen

In the first short chapter, two children are shot to death in a dark stairwell by a U.S. recon unit calling in strikes on an unnamed desert city very like Mogadishu. In the second, four members of the now-hunted unit are stranded after a helicopter rescue attempt fails in a blaze of bullets and rockets. One of the four is badly wounded. By the end of chapter three, that man lies dead in a squalid hotel room, where the survivors frantically try to figure out how to get out with their lives.

If that sounds like the opening of a whiz-bang action film, that's because the plot of Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore is that kind of page turner. Within a few pages, I was hooked and couldn't put it down.

But what gives this stunning short novel its real distinction isn't the plot. It's the jarring integration of that narrative with what else goes on in the mind of the narrator, a sergeant named Josh Stantz. We have his immediate sensations of the heat-oppressed, fly- and death-infested city, his memories of home, his thoughts about the future, his descriptions of the unfolding action—often in a single paragraph and in the order in which he experiences them. It is a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique, but one in which each sentence is as cleanly sculpted as a desert dune against the sky.

"I stood to stretch and to gather myself," Josh records in the hotel room where Cooper, the wounded medic, is dying. "All the windows were open, but still it was absolutely stifling in the room. I found the rules of engagement printed on a notecard inside my Kevlar. I wanted to read them again, to see what it said about shooting children."

In the darkness and confusion of combat, it's often impossible to tell friends from enemies, whom to help and whom to kill. Thoughts come and go, innocent, random, terrified. Sights, sounds and smells come and go: a cigarette, an MRE with ham, burning flesh. People live one minute, die the next. It all happens so fast, so relentlessly, that anything becomes as important as anything else, a sandstorm of moral anomie.

As Eck portrays it, war is insane. Josh comes through it profoundly damaged. He knows he will "never be right with the world again." He also knows himself, the worst, the best, how much he's capable of enduring.

The Farther Shore, Eck's first novel, won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize in 2007 when it was published in hardback. This paperback edition came a year later. After serving in the U.S. Army in Somalia and Haiti, Eck earned an English literature degree from Wichita State University and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Montana. According to a biographical note in the book, he lives in Kansas City and teaches at the University of Central Missouri.

John Palen, a poet and journalist, is working on a book of short fiction. His poetry has been published by Mayapple Press, March Street Press and Pudding House. Recently retired from Central Michigan University, he lives in Midland and teaches as an adjunct at Delta College.

© John Palen, 2010