“Dr. Learst’s rapid-fire collection demands we not look away from the horrors of war but stare long and hard into the carnage.”
The 12 linked stories in Allen Learst’s collection, Dancing at the Gold Monkey, introduce us to five Vietnam veterans struggling to overcome the horrors of war.
This visceral collection is the winner of the 2011 Leapfrog Fiction Contest and begins, “It was spring at last.” Edgar Allen Poe insisted that a story’s effect should be created from the first line. The effect created by this first line seems hopeful: spring and all its promise arrived.
Yet this isn’t a collection about promise and rebirth. Nor is this a collection about childlike anticipation or the gratification of the wonderful arrived. These 12 honest, brutal stories depict the ravages of war on the individual and ultimately on the collective whole and are more fitting to an opening line about gore and dismemberment and demons—images that go off throughout this book like grenades.
Nonetheless, Dr. Learst does succeed in creating this collection’s effect from the first line: he challenges our assumptions and takes aim at our complacency.
Readers, like the boy protagonist in the collection’s first story, “Under Ice,” hold positive connotations of spring:
“It was spring at last. A breeze lifted fuzzy catkins from their branches; the boy watched them float to the ground. His father steered their 1957 Ford onto the asphalt driveway under gnarled maple trees; they passed beneath a stone arch, a wrought iron sign, ‘Pontiac State Hospital,’ it said. Their dark branches mingled with steel bars on the upper floor windows of several buildings bordering the drive.”
The story’s opening underscores a sense of childlike wonder and innocence; however, the moment the reader reaches the word “gnarled” in the third sentence and we see the iron hospital sign and those steel bars, our expectations are shot through. In this story, and throughout the collection, we are thrust us into a world of harsh realities, cruelties both small and large, and savage violence.
Dr. Learst returns to the themes of identity, disillusionment, and the loss of innocence often in these 12 stories. The collection centers on how we are shaped and misshaped. The influences of family, place, peers, era, culture, and government are all visited:
“Bobby feels spent, tired from a long day of volleyball, drinking beers, and fucking. He’s proud to have a chick like Cheryl, the envy of all the guys. These moments make him feel good, when his world slows down and he sees everything ahead happening the way he intends it too. Instead of his Chevy Nova, Bobby can visualize himself strapped inside the cockpit of an F4, the Navy’s most sophisticated fighter. The name on his helmet will read ‘Shark’ or ‘Stingray.’ There will be photographs he’ll mail home to Cheryl and his two best friends . . .”
Throughout these stories, we witness boys socialized into manhood through sex, violence, and the objectification of women. Soldiers become killers through numbing the self and dehumanizing the enemy. Veterans become distortions of themselves through injury, trauma, guilt, addiction, self-abuse, crime, illness, and derangement. The five central veterans are tormented by the past and desperate to be numb to the present and the future.
This collection is nonlinear and its narrators jump back and forth through time and events—their minds like fields rigged with landmines and fuzzy from trauma, substance abuse, and wishful forgetting:
“I have a perfect view of the alley below, of stains from who-knows-what patterned on dirty concrete like a Rorschach test. Mountains move thick with jungles, the faces of men I knew in Vietnam standing in the shadows of Motown and quad .50 caliber machine guns keeping beat with the Jackson Five. It’s today, yesterday, and thirty years ago. Their names are etched into my memory . . .”
Memory throughout is shown as duplicitous: both fixed and unwavering and slippery and ever fluid. Our narrators, like memory, are unreliable and this book repeatedly refers to the blurring of reality and fantasy and the fallacies we feed ourselves and others. The sense of confusion and fragmentation doesn’t always serve the story though and on occasion the timeline proved difficult to follow and the characters hard to identity and distinguish one from the other. Regardless, Dr. Learst, himself a Vietnam veteran, writes with both the compelling authority of experience and of skill.
These hard-hitting war stories twist the familiar, thwart our expectations, and fittingly provoke and disturb:
“A memory of Vietnam came to Ray as they often did. They came in images; they came in odors; they came in sounds. Nam was more than twenty-five years ago, and nobody wanted to hear about it, and Ray accepted that. He’d gotten over that in the first two or three years home from the war, when he was angry, when he’d gotten into bar fights with people who talked like they knew something about it. It didn’t matter to Ray if they were for or against the war. He just couldn’t take listening to someone who hadn’t been there. They didn’t belong to the same fraternity, the one that had taken his youth and made him bitter before he was old enough to legally drunk.”
Nobody wanted to hear about it. These crushing, sad stories reverberate with individual and universal truths and demand readers’ examination of the self and our world. We are many of us guilty of ambivalence, ignorance, and even indifference when it comes to war and the often-horrific struggles of soldiers and veterans.
Dancing at the Gold Monkey leaves us with no illusions as to the damning affects of war on the body, spirit, and the psyche. Dr. Learst’s rapid-fire collection demands we not look away from the horrors of war but stare long and hard into the carnage. Perhaps if we “at last” allow ourselves to acknowledge these hard, grotesque truths of war, we will be moved to honest emotions and action.