Quick thoughts: I wish all “based on true events” novels had this level of honesty and insight.
Sometimes the stars just align and drop a book in your lap. Call it divine providence, call it fate. Whatever label you choose, it’s the best explanation for how I came to read this book. For a blogger like me who puts a lot of effort into drafting book reviews that may or may not be read or appreciated, comments are a sustaining lifeblood. They show that somebody took the time to read your review, and was in some way affected by what you had to say. My immediate reaction to comments at this point is to make some sort of repayment in kind. When Chris Hernandez was kind enough to leave some comments on one of my reviews, I dropped by his blog and found out that he was a combat veteran with a recently published book. Curiosity piqued, it was only a matter of minutes before Kindle had my money and I had Chris’s book.
Before wading into my opinion about this book, I want to preface things with a few points about my approach to reviews. I tend to mentally divide my reading of fiction into three loose but distinct categories: literature as art; literature as entertainment; and literature as voice. I’m not sure whether that makes sense to anyone but me, but that division of intent is the essential reason why I can rave equally about a Pulitzer winner and some piece of pulp schlock. For me, it’s all about whether an author succeeded in meeting my expectations based on how the book was pitched.
The last of my three self-defined categories—literature as voice—is by far the rarest, and one that I don’t get the opportunity to stumble across very often. In my opinion (which is all that really matters here, since it’s my personal classification system), Proof of Our Resolve fits nicely in this category. It’s a narrative that has something real to say, and expressing that reality takes precedence over the embellishments of mindless entertainment or the metaphors and literary subversions of highbrow fiction.
This book in particular is the experience of a war veteran told through the lens of a fictional medium, which provides a voice for the personal struggles that could never be captured in a simple memoir. Autobiographies—the ones I’ve read, in any case—tend to work backwards from a known conclusion, and are never as soul-baring or revealing as they suggest. By projecting autobiography into a fictionalized milieu, however, there is no escaping the inside voice or internal conflict. Rather than getting some butt-covering burnishing of credentials after the fact, this feels more like a journey into the very soul of a soldier.
Proof of Our Resolve starts off in breathless fashion by inserting us directly into a military convoy in Afghanistan, where we half-expect an IED attack at any moment. We are also introduced to Sergeant First Class Jerry Nunez, who serves as the narrative anchor to the story. He and his Texas National Guard infantry platoon have been assigned to work alongside the French army in Kapisa province, and we follow a story arc of impotent frustration as these soldiers fight an enemy that manipulates the rules of engagement to its advantage.
Something that impressed me immensely was how the French were portrayed here as real soldiers. Too often the ignorant “cheese-eating surrender monkey” caricature takes a shameful centre stage. The mutual respect between French and American forces here, however, gave an air of authenticity that is sorely missing from the usual tales of Stars and Stripes with guns a-blazin’. Instead of whitewashed heroism befitting a Hollywood screenplay, this seemed in every respect to be the real deal.
In terms of literary criticism, my impressions were almost entirely positive. Any scenes where the soldiers were off base had a crackling energy that kept me on the edge of my seat. The tension was often ratcheted to a nail-biting degree, and the action was fluidly written with an incredibly well-realized spatial awareness. I always had a clear mental image of physical layouts, friendly positions and the relative direction of incoming enemy fire. Reading these scenes was effortless, and I was continually swept into the action without any difficulty.
The continual chirping between the soldiers was another strong point, and it seemed to always come at the perfect moment. I suppose that’s something you get a feel for after so many years of service, but experience doesn’t necessarily translate to the written word. This felt just about pitch-perfect. With one scene involving a misplaced water bottle, I actually laughed out loud for longer than I can remember laughing at any other book in recent memory. That’s just plain impressive.
Where the writing suffers just a little, in my opinion, is the expositional dialogue. When the narrative had to relay factual information or set up the next series of events, the writing suddenly became just a bit too stiff and formal. The words coming out of Nunez’s mouth didn’t feel like they belonged to the character I was familiar with from scenes outside of the firebase, and the effect was a little jarring. Gone was the fluidity of the previous scenes, and it suddenly felt like I was being led through events rather than experiencing them.
There are two scenes in particular where Nunez has to make phone or house calls, and these are the hardest for me to voice an opinion about. The inner turmoil may have been drawn out just a little too long for my taste, but there was also an incredibly powerful resonance behind the words. These were scenes from real life, so intimate that you almost feel compelled to look away. Any minor issues that I had with pacing or wooden dialogue were more than amply rewarded by the privilege of experience something so genuine beneath the text.
I feel confident in predicting that Proof of Our Resolve is going to stay with me for some time. It’s simply too real to accept as just another story. If publicity is to be believed, Chris is planning to write a series of books in a similar vein. If so, I can guarantee you that I’ll be standing in line to get my copy.