That master of the short story, Anton Chekhov, once noted that a writer was not “a confectioner, a cosmetic dealer, or an entertainer,” but rather, Chekhov said, the writer was somebody who had “a contract with his conscience and his sense of duty.” One wonders perhaps what Chekhov would have made of a writer who at once wanted to sell you cosmetics, but also undermined the idea of wearing make-up at all. Although John Warner’s short story collection, A Tough Day for the Army, is brimming with metaphorical confections and cosmetics and entertainments, never, either, is he without a strong obligation to write his conscience.
Witness the arresting story “Return-to-Sensibility Problems after Penetrating Captive Bolt Stunning of Cattle in Commercial Beef Slaughter Plant #5867: Confidential Report,” where a researcher investigates some assembly line issues at a slaughtering plant. Broken into subsections of a report, all are blandly titled (like the story) but become increasingly interesting as, slowly, the distance between the researcher and his subject narrows. Warner seems to be making the point, as David Foster Wallace sought to do with The Pale King, that some of the most important things are buried in paperwork, bureaucracy, and boredom. The story does not end up being vegetarian agitprop, but instead an entrée into much more fundamental questions. “Return-to-Sensibility” demonstrates a writer who can shy away from most every storytelling convention, but still manage to succeed.
Other highlights include “My Best Seller,” a genuinely funny satirical soliloquy on publishing; “Notes from a Neighborhood War,” an absurdist take on a neighborhood dispute that results in global warfare; and the title story, where the army itself becomes a character, in a Godot-type situation in a waiting room.
In any form, Warner exhibits genial humor that still viciously bites. With a reputation as a comic writer—he is the author of the novel The Funny Man—Warner serves as the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Many of the pieces here read like some of the better features on that site, albeit expanded. A teacher of creative writing at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, Warner also writes the blog “Just Visiting” for Inside Higher Education.
Perhaps he drew from these educational experiences for the monologue story “Not Schmitty,” the most wickedly funny of the book, which is narrated by a fraternity:
It’s important to note that in this moment, we love Schmitty. We love each other. We love ourselves, but most of all we love Schmitty because he is one of us….That we are water boarding Schmitty is the proof.
If it’s a laugh-out-loud send-up of male adolescence and arrested development, it is also—perhaps like Errol Morris’ Donald Rumsfeld documentary The Unknown Known—an attempt to understand and sympathize with somebody too dull or too dense to get it.
For all the fresh takes on the short story here, the final tale, “A Love Story,” is as conventional as they come—proving that even the old tricks can still be emotionally powerful. A subtle study of an unorthodox relationship between a female Spanish teacher and her male student, it’s terribly romantic, even if the student and teacher possess a love for which neither could truly consider consummating. Warner’s touch is light as he explores the great tragedy the teacher has faced, and the ones it seems like the student will see in the future. If these two are speaking different languages, it is because the Spanish teacher doesn’t want to translate and because the student hasn’t learned how to express himself in a new tongue.
In “Return to Sensibility Problems,” the slaughtering plant story, the researcher notes that “when it comes to judging things, it’s the standard by which we’re judging that matters most.” By my standard, at least—and by the standards of anybody who wants to read a unique approach to storytelling—A Tough Day for the Army is a dizzyingly great, offbeat book.