During one crucial moment in the title story of University of Montana environmental studies professor Phil Condon's latest collection, Nine Ten Again, Clint, a 31-year old fuel tank trucker in Livingston County, stares out a barroom window.
"The edges of the glass were frosted and a beer sign blinked in the center, but you could still see through," he writes. "Pickups came and went on the square and the bar door opened and closed, but nothing changed. And the nothing changed was what Clint saw most clear."
Depending on how you take it, Clint's existentialism is kind of ironic. It's 2002 and the television in the Buzz Inn bar, tuned to Fox News, shows a grave George W. Bush standing behind a podium. Only a moment before Clint looked out the barroom window to see nothing but sameness, a man he'd been talking with pointed to the very same window: "Let me tell you something, she's a new world kicking out there...She ain't ever gonna be 9-10 again, boys."
The man at the bar is named Rex Moorford, a shady character Clint's inclined to dislike, but he's willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt when Rex offers to include Clint in a plan to go to Iraq (where, inevitably, "we're gonna go back to get that sucker and his frigging mustache..."). The impending war offers a chance for working men, like Rex and Clint, to take advantage of a situation where oil men and drivers will be needed, in exchange for a hefty payday. For Clint, the opportunity is more than just the money—it's the chance to offer something viable to his estranged wife and son. It's also the chance to do something other than "pissing your life away on dreams you can't tell anybody what they are if they even asked." When Rex fails to show up to the diner where they've planned to iron out the details over breakfast, Clint feels the disappointment and anger palpably.
For some, it seems, the post 9/11 world offers new opportunities. But for Clint, it's still a place where nothing really changes.
Clint's anger drives him to the brink of rational behavior, only to retreat, at the last moment, to the regular, workaday desperation that is his normal mode. And that kind of desperation seems worse. That men and women lead lives of quiet desperation is no new observation, but writing about it with an empathy that is genuine and even surprising is an uncommon feat—one that Condon achieves throughout this tenderly written collection.
In another story, Dee, a naïve UM cheerleader, finds herself trapped in her dorm-room closet while her roommate and the roommate's boyfriend have sex on Dee's bed. The two misfits had walked into the room unexpectedly (and unaware that Dee had returned early from her own date). After finding Dee's open diary on her desk and reading a passage about Dee's attraction to her roommate's boyfriend, the two engage in a roleplay where the roommate pretends to be the "prudish" Dee while the boyfriend violates her. After their feverish, half-drunk love, the two leave and Dee emerges from the closet: "They had left all the lights on, and [Dee] looked around, feeling she hadn't seen the room before, as if it were a kind of museum with each exhibit demonstrating one of her flaws and defects."
On one level, these stories are profoundly admirable. Condon is a natural storyteller, one who recounts defining moments with startling accuracy. Yet, Condon manages something else here as well; he stakes out deeper territory in this collection, where the notion of war—be it Vietnam, Desert Storm, or the current crises—is so omnipresent it appears like a character in itself. During a basketball game where Dee is cheering for the Griz basketball team, an anti-war protestor interrupts the game. The event troubles and preoccupies her, until she becomes the subject for ridicule and foreplay. For Clint, impending war is an occasion that reminds him that while the world may spin, he will remain in the same place, always. For others, war has a more direct effect. A Vietnam veteran, suffering from Agent Orange syndrome, struggles with paranoia while trying to maintain his image as a father and husband. All the while, his wife goes on making spaghetti and his two kids grow up to alternately pity and reject him. In Missoula, a homeless veteran who hangs out on the Madison Street bridge loses his dog to a family man with the money to pay for the dog's care. Often, war doesn't change the rhythm of one's daily life, but its reality looms and everyone is affected.
In these stories, war acts as a backdrop that somehow choreographs, if only indirectly, the flow of life for individuals who live thousands of miles from action. It's hard to write despair. It's even harder to write about war. Condon has managed to write about both in a way that deeply affects and somehow manages to show the driving force behind the souls of men and women.
Phil Condon reads from Nine Ten Again at Fact & Fiction Friday, Sept. 25, at 7 PM. Free.