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Book review: <i>Straw Writes</i> by Christopher Shugrue

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the cover of the book

While the US considers itself permanently at war, the devastating effects of conflict so close to home often go unremarked. Straw Writes is the brutal and fractured account of a veteran, haunted by what he has seen.

The story

Corporal Jack Riley served his time in Iraq and came home to the waiting arms of his wife Maggie and his daughter Rosalie. Jack, who goes by the name Straw, had some horrific experiences in Iraq, and discovered that flying half way across the world doesn't make the ghosts go away.

Straw is haunted, unbalanced, and increasingly erratic, giving Maggie and Rosalie cause to flee from him. It turns out Straw's reality back at home is just as fractured and incomprehensible as the reality he hoped to leave behind.

Straw is permanently at war; with himself, with his country, and with the ghosts that stalk his every step, reminding him of things he'd like to forget.

The style

I felt odd writing the above description about the plot of Straw Writes, because it makes the story sound conventional, and it is absolutely anything but. Certainly, it's a plot-line which resounds in contemporary TV and writing – war hero comes back with PTSD and finds it hard to put his ghosts to rest – but Shugrue has chosen to tell this well-worn tale in the form of a prose chapbook, weighing in at a featherweight fifty pages. Its size belies its intensity; the reading experience throws the reader deep in dark spaces, grasping for a tangible reality to take hold of.

The writing is intentionally fractured yet well threaded and plotted, including letters between Jack and Maggie, a letter from the armed services, the memories Straw allows himself to see and the memories he tries to keep away, and the reality of being homeless in the snow in an unforgiving cityscape. Interspersed throughout Straw's writing is that of notable poets who have written about war, including Ginsberg and Whitman, who haunt Straw very particularly. In a chapbook this short these inclusions might have given me pause if they weren't perfectly selected, but they were. Each snap of another poet's work enriched the prose perfectly, and came across as an homage by an author who knew he couldn't say it better. And as I said, the selections were just right. I spent half my reading experience with goosebumps, reading those excerpts from poetry I've read a hundred times, so well placed within this particular journey.

I'm often wary of experimental writing. Let's be honest, it's an experiment, so it could go either way. There is absolutely no cause for concern is Straw Writes, though. It's brutal, honest, short, and reads easily while punching the reader in the guts. I read it while halfway through reading Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut and it didn't fall short in unintended comparison, which in my mind is high praise indeed. It's a beautiful first book.

Who is this book for?

If you're a Tom Clancy kind of a reader, this war story is not for you. This is for the prose lovers among us. It's intelligent and fierce, and can be read in a single train-trip (beware reading it in one sitting, though, it's a lot to take in!) I would recommend this as a gift for the discerning Whitman/Ginsberg/Dylan lover in your life.

In short

Title: Straw Writes
Author: Christopher Shugrue
Publisher: Monkey Puzzle Press
Year published: 2014
Pages: 55
Genre(s): War, Contemporary literature
Review Type: