by Y.S. Fing
Were you aghast at the imperial overreach of the Bush administration after 9/11? Have you long harbored dreams of pursuing evidence of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques the US Intelligence services utilized in extra-judicial proceedings, on foreign soil, against “enemy combatants” during the “War on Terror”? Welcome to the world of Enemy Combatant protagonist Peter’s mind. Rendered at the edge of sanity by David Dario Winner, Peter is consumed by grief when his mother passes on unexpectedly. His relationship with his wife has crumbled. They’ve decided to take a break (while she is pregnant), and he goes off on a roiling misadventure with his barely civilized friend, Leonard. Together they gallivant (at first) and then get into the deadly serious business of identifying a “black site,” where those whom the Americans have deemed “unlawful combatants” (as ignominious a designation as the 3/5 rule which led to the acceptance of the US Constitution) were/are held and tortured to reveal the secrets of those who have plotted against America. Peter’s is not a hero’s journey, but the idea of speaking truth to power in the United States is as heroic now as it has ever been.
David Winner’s third novel, Enemy Combatant received a coveted starred Kirkus review. Let’s dig a little deeper into the organizing principles and narrative structure with David.
Y.S. Fing: I’d like to start by asking about the title, the designation of a person who fights against the United States who cannot be thought of as a lawful soldier, and so doesn’t fall under the protections of the Geneva Convention. How did this idea provoke you to write the book? Or did the title come later in the process?
David Winner: As far as I know, John Walker Lindh and all the Americans since suspected of joining Isis or Al Qaeda have been given that same label, which, as you point out, denies them Geneva Convention protection as well as depriving them of real habeas corpus and access to the American justice system. The idea for the title came up in my mind pretty quickly when I began to try to construct a story about American citizens attempting what would be considered a terrorist act. The title is meant to be both ominous and absurd. If Peter and Leonard got labeled enemy combatants, their lives would be over. Deservedly so, perhaps, as their attempt to right George W. Bush-era wrongs are pretty scary and malign, despite their good intentions.
I want readers to ponder what it means to be an “enemy combatant” and whether the three protagonists of this novel, the Pakistani prisoner and the two Americans who try to rescue him, fit that category. Someone who read the book didn’t like the title so much because it sounded to them like a video game. I wasn’t thinking that, but the term does suggest a kind of ruthless efficiency that a video game implies, quite the opposite of my lost and foolish protagonists, Abbott and Costello in Iraq, Harold and Kumar in Afghanistan, my characters in Georgia and Armenia.
YSF: I’m rather a Bob Dylan fan and I thought I detected a similar story architecture between Enemy Combatants and “Isis.” A man gets married then goes off on a wild, fatal adventure, whereby he returns and well, I don’t want to spoil it! Am I entirely off? Any Dylan influence? Please feel free to say more about Peter and the processing of his grief.
DW: I am also a Dylan-lover and a fan of “Isis,” but I’ve never paid proper attention to the lyrics until now. I see what you mean, though. The man in the song, like Peter in my novel, runs into some sort of trouble with his wife. Then he takes off and meets another dangerous character with whom he has some misadventures (breaking into tombs??!!) then returns to Isis, as Peter hopes to return to his wife.
Another Bob Dylan/Jacque Levy concoction from the same album is “Joey.” Dylan glorifies Joey Gallo, a real-life mafia enforcer, as a heroic figure. When I first moved to Carroll Gardens/Brooklyn in the early nineties, the old Gallo car service was still open on Smith Street, not where you’d ever want to go to get a ride someplace.
YSF: The black site which you present in the book is both remote and relatively easy to find. It seems the Americans can’t hide and they don’t try very hard. Is this evidence of American arrogance, and the abuse of its allies? Are you as strongly politically motivated as Peter? Were you enraged by the Bush wars of choice and occupation? Was this book a way to channel that rage?
DW: As far as the black sites in the book, I was attempting something which could be problematic, given that real lives and psyches were so drastically at stake. Rather than try to model what appears in the novel on actual places, I let my imagination lead me to Gothic places: Shelley, Brönte, Stoker. And my eerie off-kilter experiences in Georgia and Armenia made them good models. I would assume that the actual black sites were better hidden and better guarded, but sometimes, as the Trump administration has revealed again and again, we should not assume that anything coming out of our government and military is necessarily competent and well though-out.
In terms of my rage, yes, absolutely. I’m embarrassed to say that I bear certain surface similarities to the character of Peter. Among them was indeed an apoplectic rage against the Bush administration, starting soon after 9/11, when I, for better or for worse, got pretty out of tune with my country. My wife and I traveled under the World Trade Center together that morning to take PATH trains to the college in which we taught in New Jersey, an awesomely normal experience until an hour or so later when planes crashing and buildings falling could be seen from the windows of the building in which I was teaching. Like anyone in New York with a heart (and a nose to smell what was coming from Ground Zero), I was saddened by the loss of life, and that did not lead to patriotism or anger, rather a sense that those who lost their lives were as much victims of American foreign policy as the terrorists. That sounds grandiose, by the way, and is not at all an original thought. Anyway, I was already primed for anger even before the evil of the Bush Administration became so startlingly clear.
Yes, in a way, the writing of the novel was a channeling of rage, but the channeling took an indirect journey. First, there was a trip to Vietnam and a novel I could never write about someone trying to kidnap Lieutenant Calley, the primary instigator of murder at My Lai. I began to imagine a character who shared my political fury but was even more unhinged than I. Obviously, “leftwing” “terrorism” (I think both deserve quotes) was notable in the seventies with the Weatherman and the Symbionese Liberation Army, but no one really attempted anything overseas.
The trickiest, most ensnarled part of the book is that the two characters are supposed to be kind of funny in their insanity, but that what they’re upset about and what they encounter could not be more serious.
I don’t want to offend readers, but if I do, I hope that that experience takes them on an interesting journey.
Of course, I had no idea that an incredible act of American terrorism was about to happen in Washington, D.C.
YSF: As the Ottomans gave way to Atatürk, Ani and other towns on Turkey’s Armenian border have been reclaimed by the Turks from “foreigners,” becoming desolate, haunted spaces. They stand as memorials to genocidal ethnic cleansing. Can you describe your experiences there and how Ani came to be so prominent in your story?
DW: The idea of placing the action in Armenia came originally from a brief journey there eight years ago. I’m pompous enough to apologize to the Republic of Armenia in my acknowledgments because a brief anecdotal impression sparked what is surely an inaccurate depiction. The town of Alaverde in the Lori Valley seemed post-industrial, Gothic. The enormous rusting ruins of Soviet industry and the absence of people anywhere near made it seem haunted. An appropriate-seeming setting for dark happenings.
A couple of years later, I returned to Armenia, primarily to go to the Turkish border where part of the story takes place. While there, I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Yerevan. The steel structure and dangerously lapping eternal flame were moving but very abstract and kind of Soviet. There were no other visitors for the twenty minutes or so that I was there. But only about 50 meters away was a nightclub packed with noise and people and life. I couldn’t grasp the name of the place because it was written in Armenian, but it could have been Holocaust Memorial Disco. The juxtaposition between the honoring of Armenian victims of genocide and drunken, privileged-seeming Armenian youth a century later was jarring.
Later, in a city called Gyumri, which is still very damaged from an earthquake three decades before, I paid a guy to take me to the Turkish border. I wondered if he was suspicious of me, but I think I was too shlumpy and disorganized to seem like CIA. After taking me to the border, he did not drive me back to where I was staying, and there was no mutual language for me to ask where we were going. We drove down a really rough road toward a battered illegible signboard in the midst of underbrush. Then he handed me binoculars (that he had gone to some lengths to acquire) and directed me to point them toward Turkey. In the far distance on the other side of the border was Ani, the glimmering ruins of the great Armenian capital only accessible to most Armenians by looking through binoculars from Armenia.
Later, I met another man who had been an engineer in Soviet Armenia but lost his career when the USSR fell. He told me a story from the first war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the nineties. In his version, brave Armenians surrounded the mostly Afghani mercenary Azerbaijani troops and massacred “all” of them, thousands and thousands. Looking it up later, I verified the battle and the fact of the Azerbaijani mercenary army, but the complete annihilation was a violent fiction. And it is my understandings that Azerbaijan was both more the victor and more the aggressor in the recent and terrible conflict in Karabakh that happened just as Covid was raging.
YSF: Going back to Gilgamesh, male characters in literature have engaged with each other on all levels. In Enemy Combatant, Peter and Leonard have been in the trenches with each other since college. They know each other’s weaknesses and are often wordlessly forgiving of extreme behavior. Can you tell us more about exploring that mythical aspect of male friendship?
DW: Well, this is my first novel without a female protagonist, and the basic reason for that absence is the foolish and crazy behavior that seems very male. One of the challenges for me as a writer tends to be my desire to have believable characters behave in extreme and illogical ways. I never thought of this as a “buddy” novel, but in a way, I supposed that’s a decent description because when men bond, dysfunction and disaster are often not far off. In an early draft, Peter is compared to a David Copperfield figure and Leonard to a Steerforth one, a passive man/boy allowing himself to be seduced into malfeasance by a much braver, riskier, more dangerous male. Which was kind of like my childhood, not that I would have been some sainted figure if not under the influence of others. I remember so many minor malfeasances (burning math books at the end of the trimester, inhaling nitrous oxide from supermarket whipping cream cans) that I would never have dreamt of doing on my own. Peter, reeling from a whole series of problems in his life, still needs an extra boost to act in these crazy and dangerous ways. Leonard, also reeling in his own way, is anarchic and nihilistic enough to lead the way.
YSF: You’ve also recently been involved in the publication of a book Writing the Virus, from the website Stat-o-Rec (Statement of Record). Can you tell us a bit about that project, your essay in it, and any other literary communities you’re involved in?
D.W.: Stat-o-Rec was created by John Reed, who teaches in the MFA program at the New School, as kind of a surreal joke. It falsely claimed to have been founded by Dorothy Parker, to have been praised by Entertainment Weekly and to be concerned with “world domination by artists.” I was asked to be a Contributing Editor, but what we published was kind of random until the writer and artist Andrea Scrima took over as Editor-in-Chief, and we upped our standards. Soon after Covid, an article in the New York Times warned writers from writing about the virus, and that made sense because it was hard to imagine what anyone could possibly have to say. But then Andrea published a moving account of being in Italy just as Corona was beginning, and I wrote a really quite quotidian essay about my experiences running up and down a hill in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and railing in my mind, and in one unfortunate case in actuality, against those who were not wearing masks or distancing properly. We started soliciting writers (some famous like Roxanna Robertson and Joan Juliet Buck and others not famous at all) to write about their experiences during this time. George Floyd was murdered during all of this, and other essays addressed the racial reckoning in the wake of that event. We eventually decided to try to fast-track an anthology of these writings, and, Jon Roemer, my editor at Outpost 19, had saved a slot in his Fall list for something spontaneous, so it actually became a book. It’s got some great writing, and is a good snapshot of this bizarre time.