THE FARTHER SHORE by Matthew Eck
The Father Shore - Matthew Eck (Milkweed, Oct. 2007, 192 p.)
In his short story “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O'Brien sets the parameters for stories about war. He writes, “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done.”
By this definition Matthew Eck's first novel, The Farther Shore, succeeds as a “true” war story. Josh Stantz, the novel's narrator, despite being told by his lieutenant to “stop thinking so much, ”does not try to find meaning in the shadowy, haunted city, presumably somewhere in Africa, that he patrols. Eck, a former solider in Somalia and Haiti, resists the urge to become didactic and instead focuses on creating a world where the dead must be forgotten so that the living may be preserved. The book opens with the prerequisite elements of a contemporary war story: sand, which seems to corrode the city and its inhabitants, the scent of death, and an unfathomable darkness. Stantz, who has been made sick by the heat, and five of his comrades are guarding an abandoned building. A quasi-philosophical conversation between Stanz and his “battle buddy,” Cooper, about the nature of love and war is interrupted as two people, presumably enemy soldiers, enter. In the chaos that follows, the intruders, who turn out to be two young boys, are mistakenly shot by Stanz's comrades.
Seemingly abandoned by the Army, the men then begin their journey of survival. The rules of engagement begin to fade, and the men begin to fight amongst themselves. The Army comes to represent an ever-receding hope that things will return to normal. Eck's prose is alternately sparse and lyrical, much like the landscape that his protagonist inhabits. But the inconsistency of the prose suggests that Eck is not in full control of the narrative he delivers. In a scene involving a dead shark on a beach, Stanza remarks that he “really wanted to look into the dead shark's eyes,” though, in the end, he “never summoned the courage.” While the image of the decaying shark is powerful, Stanz's desire to look into the creature's eyes comes off as disingenuous, mostly because the reader never gets a clear idea of Stanz's internal life. Even though the story is told from Stanz's perspective, we often learn more about him through dialogue than from his actual narration.
While The Farther Shore demonstrates the senselessness of war, it does so without revising the conventions of war narrative. Eck's compelling and unsettling story presents the reader with an uncensored account of the ways that combat taints its players, while the barren landscape and tormented characters lend the narrative a nightmarish quality. The world that Eck creates is without redemption but, as in a terrible dream, we get the sense that if only the characters were able to forget their experiences, they could find some solace.