In an unnamed coastal city in Africa, a group of U.S. soldiers is cut off from central command and left to navigate hostile territory.
Matthew Eck has no trouble infusing a chilling authenticity into his debut novel about warfare in an unnamed coastal city in Africa: Before becoming a creative-writing instructor at the University of Central Missouri, he served with the U.S. Army in Somalia. "The Farther Shore" is a spare, believable, grunt's eye-view story in which heroics are pointless and survival is the only guiding principle. It works best taken as a timeless fable; a boat ride on the River Styx or a stroll thought Dante's "Inferno" past horrific sights and mysterious demons. Its shortcoming is that the battle of Mogadishu has been thoroughly documented in the public consciousness, and the real story often overshadows Eck's attempts to create a fictional one.
Eck nicely manages an untrained and unaffected voice for Josh Stantz, the sergeant who narrates "The Farther Shore." He wisely avoids analysis, focusing instead on being in the moment. And though Stantz is seemingly perceptive, Eck never gives him the kind of overly wrought philosophical observations that ring false in a first-person battle narrative.
The language is mostly stark and serviceable: "The city shook under a heavy barrage of fire. Dogs howled all around us. Dust rattled into the air. The sun had baked the scent of death into the city's bricks, and it rose with the dust." A few times, Eck gives over to dreamy poetics, but only in a way that seems to come organically from the character, such as this rumination Stantz practices to escape fear: "I tried to think of something happy, the way you're told to think of Hawaii and puppies if you're dying of hypothermia. I remembered the eyelashes. When I was in basic training, and then later when I first arrived at Fort Drum, a girl I once loved used to send me letters, and every time I opened one of them there was an eyelash hidden in the folds of paper." It's a strangely beautiful image, but not too fanciful to believe a soldier might remember it with doom closing in.
Though one can't fault Eck's research, setting the story in what is obviously Somalia and making it about a group of soldiers who are cut off and threatened by hostile locals feels a little too close to Mark Bowden's exhaustively researched "nonfiction novel,"Black Hawk Down." As a result, distracting comparisons between the real and fictional stories arise. When Stantz and his band flee the confines of the city later in the novel, however, they leave the shadow of Bowden's telling and move into a woozy, uncomfortable world of young lives on the cusp of death.
This naked survivalism haunts the reader long after the conclusion of "The Farther Shore." Eck may not have chosen a wholly unique subject for his first novel, but he manages to insinuate a creepy mysticism into a history that many of us know only as blow-by-blow realism.
Cherie Parker writes for alt-weeklies and other publications in Washington, D.C.