A soldier’s stories

A Sparks native has a new book of stories about everyday life in a modern war

Caleb Cage is the author of Desert Mementos, a book of short stories about everyday life on active duty.

Caleb Cage is the author of Desert Mementos, a book of short stories about everyday life on active duty.

photo/Kris VAGNER

Iraq veteran Caleb Cage wrote a book of short stories, Desert Mementos, published this year. With the war as a backdrop, Cage delves into the inner workings of the people it affects as they go about their jobs.

Most of the stories take place in Iraq, though Cage’s characters carry their Nevadan memories and sensibilities with them. In “Operation Battle Mountain,” for example, as a soldier checks to make sure the Humvees are supplied and prepares for a night mission, part of his attention is on his job, part of it on the safety of an Iraqi translator he’s befriended, and another part of it on his wife, who’s nearing the end of a difficult pregnancy back home. In “This Is Not Burning Man,” soldiers on duty watch Burning Man coverage on Fox, phone-prank a colleague, and contend with annoying office minutiae such as a memo dictating font size.

Cage talked to the RN&R about the process of conceiving and writing these stories.

You get into pretty precise detail about soldiers’ internal workings—things like missing family members and intrapersonal conflicts between people when they’re on watch duty. Did you aim to address people like me, who know nothing about military life, or were you writing for an audience of your peers?

I didn’t really presume to have an audience or a goal in mind. I wanted to write the stories that I wanted to write. People have asked me, “So, were you trying to make me feel this certain way with this story?” … Honestly, as I was writing these, I was trying to say something that I thought was meaningful about the war, or Nevada, or Iraq. … I am very much interested in the idea of using literature to bridge the gap between people who have maybe experienced these things, and people who have not. And there are going to be people who disagree with my take on the wartime experience as well. To be able to have these conversations is, in my opinion, the ultimate goal of the humanities in general, particularly fiction writing, in this case.

That’s how it reads, not like you were trying to speak for anyone else—or be comprehensive.

It bugs me when other people speak for me, so I want to be careful about speaking for others.

To what extent are your narrators really you?

There’s one story in there, the Burning Man story. I served in the Joint Operations Center in Iraq in 2006, and got the observation, so the place is there. I think I actually read Brian Doherty’s book [This Is Burning Man] while I was there—those sorts of things.

All of it is influenced by my own experiences. Let me give you a better example. In “Operation Battle Mountain”—my wife is from Battle Mountain—she was pregnant with our first child when I wrote that. It focuses a lot on the themes of what fatherhood is, what a father’s role is in the family, especially while he’s away, and how he commits between his career and all that stuff. Pretty clearly I was wrestling with those things as I wrote that.

The other thing I’d say about the stories in general is—with the exception of the Burning Man story, they’re all kind of dark. They’re fairly dark stories. I think that’s a reflection of how I was processing my wartime stories as well.

Yeah, they’re dark in the way you’d expect them to be with a war going on—and they’re also dark in a dark office comedy kind of way.

That’s a good observation. The war is going on, but humans are still involved in that war. So, it’s all-consuming when it’s intense, at its most intense, but I found, while I was there, there was an awful lot of time that was boring. Now, you’re never completely bored, because you never have control over when things are going to go south or go negative. But I tried to convey that.

The first story [“Tonopah Low”] is obviously a stand-alone story, and in the eight stories that follow, I intend to sort of explain that first story in some respects. Why is this person making these bad decisions? And so the eight stories that follow are laid out over the course of a one-year deployment, and I think what I felt while I was there, was this idea that you get desensitized to the extremity of war over time. You can become a little more callous. You can become a little more focused on survival and things like that. …

But, it wasn’t combat every day. There was the threat, or the fear, of combat every day, but over time you would desensitize to that as well. I was trying to capture the big pictures, the high points, thinking about the people, the emotions involved, the stress, but also the lack of control, the lack of ability to control the stressors.

Were you writing while you were still in Iraq?

My first book was a memoir, The Gods Of Diyala. I was writing for that one when I was there. I kept a diary and things like that.

When you talk about the book at readings, what are the first things you bring up?

I talk about what connects the people of Nevada and Iraq in these stories. … People will ask, “What’s the same about Northern Iraq and Reno?” It’s really about the people, and it’s about humanity. … I like to point out that the very last words of the last story are, basically, “We’re going to be OK.” And, usually by the time I do that, people will ask me if this was an exercise in catharsis of some sort for me.

Was it?

Yeah, I think so. The book is dedicated to my wife, Brooke. It says something to the effect of, “For Brooke: you are the happy story you couldn’t find in these pages.” And the story behind that is—my wife is absolutely the sweetest, kindest, most supportive person, and she would read these stories, and they were sad, and she would finish a story like “Operation Battle Mountain,” and she would say, “Can’t you just write a happy ending for one of these stories?” And I really couldn’t.

… I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but these things really reflect the emotions I was going through at the time, and the emotions I needed to access, and maybe the emotions that I hadn’t dealt with in my very dry and straightforward non-fiction.

Were your peers from the war writing fiction, too?

It’s pretty common. We’ve done some veterans writing workshops, and I’ve gotten to know this small community of Iraq and Afghanistan writers, so you get to know the kind of top-end—Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award, or Matt Gallagher, who’s from Reno, you know, some of these folks—but I think there’s a strong desire for people to want to tell their stories.