I believe my friend James Tarr has done an amazing thing with DOGSOLDIERS. Instead of a vast sweeping epic of civil war in America, he has built a perfectly constructed, narrowly focused…dare I say, intimate? — portrait of men and women at war. He has looked through the wrong end of the telescope and narrowed a national calamity into a groups of ARFs, irregular soldiers, in roughly the 10th year of a brutal red/blue civil war in America. There are hints of what is going on elsewhere, but the laser-like focus is on Theodore (they named their cells after cartoon characters, of course) a group of men and occasionally women fighting a guerrilla battle in the shambles of Detroit, a city that was more or less in shambles BEFORE the civil war started.
But Jim never lets the focus shift to the city from the soldiers. In fact, even though the city is described in detail, I can recall only one time a character said the word “Detroit,” and that was toward the end of the book.
Jim clearly makes a strong political statement here, but he seamlessly blends the politics into the book. The characters never stop the plot to deliver a speech; rather, they struggle with themselves and with their teammates (although “teammates” seems too weak a word for these relationships) to truly explain what they are fighting for, and why they are fighting in this ruined city. The front of the war has long since moved “out west,” but the guerrillas struggle…and die…to tie up the government troops and to prove that .gov can take nothing for granted. They may have “won,” but they haven’t won at all.
The book is built around a single spectacular battle, a battle not to end the war, but maybe to bring the enemy to the table. I’m not a book reviewer…I’m a writer, and writing fascinates me. I believe it was Robert Penn Warren who said something of the effect that “All writing is rhythm.” Good writing has an internal rhythm that carries the reader along, even if the reader isn’t aware of it. There are two other points…if the characters aren’t real, aren’t human, the reader can’t connect on a visceral level. We watch, but we don’t feel. Jim very carefully takes you into the characters reality by using the newest and youngest member of the team.
From there on Jim carefully controls the pacing until by the time the battle is launched, the pace is absolutely breakneck, which he keeps up through the remainder of DOGSOLDIERS.
One other point…Tarr is as much of a gun nerd as I am, but his descriptions of firearms are completely appropriate to the plot…none of this Tactical Tommy listing every bit of equipment and it’s price tag.
There is a long “from the author” afterwards at the end of DOGSOLDIERS where Jim notes there are three ways First World countries like the U.S. fall — by invasion, by civil war and…wait for it…pandemics. I’m sure my friend never imagined that he would release this book in the middle of a hot epidemic surrounded by a shuttered economy. So read DOGSOLDIERS for the sheer entertainment of it, because, honestly, it’s a hard book to put down…as I found out around 3AM last night. Then read it as a warning.
Good job, my friend.