107 pages, 2016
Water & Power
174 pages, 2018
Both titles available from Tarpaulin Sky Press
I saw Steven Dunn read from his first novel, Potted Meat, at an AWP offsite event in Portland last year. He was hands down the best reader of the night, so afterwards I beelined to him to buy his book. He didn’t have copies on him, but told me I could find it online. I made a note about it in my phone and then, like the bad bad person I am, promptly forgot about it in the chaos of the conference.
Fast forward to a year later, and I see Dunn’s second and more recent novel Water & Power mentioned on the internet. Oh yeah, I say to myself. I wanted to read that guy’s stuff! I typically don’t buy more than one title at a time from an author I’ve never read before – I like to test the waters before fully committing – so I placed an order for Potted Meat directly from the press (support indie publishers!). When they erroneously sent me copies of both titles, I was grateful, but filed Water & Power further down in my to-read queue.
However, this is all set-dressing to say two things:
- I was dumb for not buying Dunn’s book right away, and
- I was dumb for thinking that after reading one of his books I wouldn’t immediately toss myself at the other.
Potted Meat, about a Black boy’s adolescence in a small town in West Virginia, is a novella that I devoured over the course of two evenings, and it is now easily my favorite book I’ve read in the past year. After finishing it, I immediately disregarded my queue and set into Water & Power. While I wasn’t initially as excited about it based on the description alone (flashback to my mother making me watch Tora! Tora! Tora! as a child and I’ve never been much into anything even remotely war- or military-related as a media genre since) I was wrong again, and consumed it over another two nights. Structured as a collection of investigative resources framed by the narrator’s own perspectives, Water & Power is an incredibly nuanced and thoughtful critique of military culture that anyone would enjoy.
I know I’m front-loading this with a lot of negatives (mostly about myself), but bear with me as I drop one more: Whenever I edit review submissions for Entropy, I tell people refrain from insulting or criticizing other writing as a way of propping up the text you’re discussing. More often than not, regardless of intent, it just makes the reviewer look snobby and judgy.
With that in mind, let me begin by doing that very thing I tell y’all not to do.
Lately I’ve been having a difficult time reading contemporary writing that attempts to cram every setting and action with so many minute details, hastily strung together, that the writing starts to feel more like it’s checking off description boxes than crafting a truly immersive scene/ vibe/ aesthetic. After attempting and eventually setting aside multiple books like this, picking up Potted Meat was an immense relief, as though I’d been holding my breath, waiting for the right book to tell me to let it out. Dunn’s writing did just that. It allowed me to breathe.
Take for example the following description of four kids living in their grandmother’s house, sharing the same bathwater to keep the water bill down:
I stick my toe in the cold grey. I’m not supposed to run new water into the tub but I have a trick. I wrap my washrag around the faucet and turn the knob just a little. Hot water slides down the front of the tub. The thick black ring around the tub is perfect for drawing. With my finger I draw a landscape from the back to the front, mountains and a train and a city and a sun and birds and trees. To make leaves I put my finger in the washrag and stipple around the branches. Grey soapsuds for people’s afros. With my fingernail I scrape white off the bar of soap to highlight the trees and black clouds.
Regardless of theme or plot or arc, just at a linguistic and structural level this book does a thoughtful job of stacking details and dialogue. Simultaneously minimalist and comprehensive, Potted Meat is full of moments like these. There is a very clever balance of offering just the right amount of description, described in just the right way – thorough but simple, not overwrought or burdened, and varied enough in rhythm to keep the syntax engaging. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by minutia, I’m encouraged to just give myself over to the details, to wander through them.
That’s the craft part of it – when it comes to content, however, this book isn’t for the faint-of-heart. Potted Meat is dark. It is witty and smart and endearing and beautiful, but it is dark. From wrenching emotional abuse, to caring for a relative with dementia, to the racism associated with interracial dating, emerges a portrait of trauma, of sadness and isolation, and of the kind of coping mechanisms required to keep wading through. A scene of dealing drugs, or cleaning shit off Grandma, or shoveling coal at 5am to keep the house heated, is written with so much humor and nonchalance that an astute reader might see the patterns of normalization in Dunn’s prose. However, the minimization of trauma is a coping mechanism. Through it, a sadness and anger shines in the background, in graphic descriptions of ugly things, so graphic as to turn it into a portrait, like one of the many art pieces the narrator creates, something ultimately beautiful nonetheless:
In the alley a bloody-mouthed raccoon gnaws on a white baby shoe. It stands on a mattress with piss stains. A yellow blob of chicken fat traced by a trail of ants. The chicken fat slugs along a mucus path. A bath of flies pile on the exposed red tendons and bone of a deer leg severed at the knee. Three rat-like kittens moan like babies in a soggy cardboard box. The fourth kitten is silent. Only the head remains. Its deflated body shredded on the other end of the mattress. Draped across the tops of three trash cans are large bouquets of funeral flowers, wilted off-white and droopy pink roses buried in full deep green leaves. The sun peeks over the mountains, rays poking through the fog, tinting everything soft yellow.
Potted Meat is nigh impossible to reduce to single lines or soundbites – part of the elegance and immersiveness of Dunn’s writing is that it constantly builds. Any one sentence on its own conveys very little out of context, but when strung together they stack relentlessly, parts of a whole body assembling, building the momentum with which to strike the reader in the gut. Take the above excerpt (which constitutes an entire “chapter”). It is a list of details comprising a single snapshot of trash in an alley. But in this list we can decipher deeper truths about both the narrator and the environment – the details communicate violence and death and decay, but build toward the picturesque.
Which makes the buildup at the end of the novel, wherein the narrator prepares to leave town and join the navy, poignant and sympathetic. It is the only escape he can see, and he takes it; as a reader I want him to, but as a person cognizant of the military-industrial complex we live in, of the way the military preys on the disadvantaged for recruitment, I also find myself wondering about the cost of that escape.
This question of cost is, in a way, answered in Dunn’s second novel, Water & Power, which seems to serve as a sort of informal sequel to Potted Meat. Potted Meat ends with the narrator enlisting in the navy; Water & Power is the investigation of that experience. Water & Power weaves in many different voices through the structure of interviews, but the bits that are presented from the POV of the narrator have a similar, albeit more mature, tone compared to Dunn’s previous book.
If Potted Meat is a poignant and devastating portrayal of trauma, abuse, neglect, and parentification, Water & Power is an equally devastating glimpse – from the perspective of someone who has experienced enough ugliness to be able to see it and name it for what it is – at the horrors and abuses of power at root in US military culture. Written with the same casual wit as its predecessor, the book also adds an element of investigative journalism while persisting in similarly devastating imagery:
I can’t sleep. The guy above me is snoring. So is the guy next to me. The guy above him is jacking off, that scratchy grey blanket is going up and down up and down. I close my eyes tight and say, I’m doing something important, I’m doing something important. I get up to go pee. I walk in the head. A guy is trying to slit his wrist, disposable razor blood on sink. He sees me in the mirror. Oh, I say. That’s okay, he says, shitty razors.
This is the brilliance of Dunn’s writing – it doesn’t need to dwell on, contextualize, or moralize the darkness it’s presenting. Instead, he places his reader firmly in the middle of a sad, awful song that doesn’t need to tell you how sad and awful it is – he trusts the song’s rhythm and chords to vibrate the darkness directly into your bones.
Water & Power deftly weaves examples of military propaganda with subject interviews that discuss such topics as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the act of killing and being killed, the strain service puts on personal relationships, physical and emotional trauma, sexual assault, and toxic masculinity. It also includes the narrator’s own experiences, one of which is as a volunteer in a museum of taxidermied combat veterans. A few sections are dedicated to the dissection and recreation of the bodies reclaimed from the field, and include a repetition of dissection diagrams that serve to flatten and objectify a cadaver, subsequently signaling the idea that a soldier’s body – even when they are no longer fighting – is no longer their own.
Through these personal accounts there unfolds a discrepancy between the reputation and the reality of “serving.” There is a motif of “wanting out” and counting down the days, the years, juxtaposed with propaganda, nationalistic interview transcriptions, and an anecdote of the narrator’s family’s pride at his own service. It is unexpected, though not surprising, to read a book so unabashedly critical of the military written by someone who spent so much time in it, but that lends Dunn an authority over the criticism he levies throughout the text.
My country says you did something
wrong. I will tell myself that until I feel
better. I will tell myself that until I feel
better. I will tell myself that until I feel
better. I will tell myself that until I feel
better. I will tell you that until
The book culminates in an itemization of weapons, accounts of assault on both “foreign hostiles” as well as on the bodies of the military’s own, descriptions of casualties, civilian casualties, casualties that are named, 23 pages – in fact – of names of people killed by the united states military that act as a brutal memorial of unjustified, undignified violence. This book teaches us that bodies are objects, that personhood is abstract – a command or words on a page – and that what persists is ugly, thoughtless power. But Dunn refuses that, and he puts the names to it, shows the receipts, takes that power for his own, and subverts a narrative of justice and honor.
The preface of Water & Power states that, “Most Subjects insisted that no one could possibly understand until they’ve served in the military themselves. I don’t claim to understand.” But I think both of those assertions are complicated by this text. Perhaps the narrator can claim not to understand what the military is supposed to be, but he definitely demonstrates an understanding of what it is. And through his understanding, we understand as well – perhaps not on the sort-of intrinsic, empathetic, intimate level that requires first-hand experience, but we get at its essence. Because this kind of horror is not new and it’s not abstract, and Dunn does a perfect, beautiful, thoughtful job encapsulating the grime of it.
Even though I run this review section, I seldom actually write reviews myself, and that’s in large part because I often feel like I do not have the authority (read: confidence) to say what a book is about; what it’s trying to do. I don’t want to make assumptions that read as assertions, or interpretations that read as psychoanalysis. But there come times when I am so moved by a piece of writing that those insecurities slip away and I can write about what the work means to me, how I am engaging with it, offer one reader’s experience in the hope that others will be moved to pick up the book as well. Potted Meat and Water & Power are both their own punishment and their own reward, a two-for-on that everyone should absolutely consider, and have left me eagerly awaiting Steven Dunn’s next work.