Combating madness

These are small, yet loaded details: growing up a latchkey kid, fist-fighting beside the old man while little brother watches from a darkened truck cab, shoplifting cold cuts for dinner and stealing jeans sized large enough to last through the next two years of breakneck adolescent growth—but this series of minor points adds up, fast. Before you can say Jack Robinson, they transform a scrapping kid into a young man possessed of mysterious knowledge, the sort of knowing that will inevitably terrify the preceding generations into forging a near-impassible gap between itself and what it does not comprehend.

In the wake of his history, this fledgling man does the thing that makes sense to him, and what the times call for—he enlists. The tale of what happens next is given life through H. Lee Barnes’ collection of stories, Minimal Damage.

Incarcerated, homeless, physically disabled or suffering from near-invisible psychical wounds, the protagonists in Minimal Damage have all embarked on journeys homeward that rival the pain and confusion of Odysseus’ post-war wanderings. Each searches—not always in vain—for a clear path to armistice in the midst of his private battle. One or two manage to assimilate fairly well into civilian life, only to find that the terms of that existence are riddled with ball-breaking provisos written in tiny print.

In the title story, Rodney Jamison, a bank branch manager, father, husband and—not least—veteran of Desert Storm, orders his existence by repressing combat memories. Rodney then witnesses his stubborn war demons re-animated by a pick and shovel dug into the backyard of the family home.

“Into the Silence” introduces Crazy Hank. Perhaps the roughest vision of a troubled veteran in the lot of stories, Hank went Section 8 during Vietnam and now spends his days working street corners for meals and change. He is thankful for anything given, even a glob of ABC’d gum, until the day someone asks for a demoralizing favor in return.

A disembodied fraternity roams the pages of Barnes’ latest work, peppering the comparatively pale slate of civilian existence with poignant spots of defect. It is almost a foregone conclusion that a group of stories about war veterans will contain exclusively sad tales. Barnes skillfully side steps the obvious, though, by merely alluding to the conflicts that haunt his characters. War is the elephant in the room, spoken of in airy flashbacks and with subtle, black humor. The source of trouble concerns Barnes less than the array of vexations it causes.

In this well-formed, unified collection, the fault line between those who have served as soldiers and those who haven’t is laid bare. The result is a series of stories that can’t resist being comic at times, but in the end, inescapably doleful. If sadness is, as Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran characterized it, merely a wall between two gardens, then Barnes has given his readers a view from astride it, a place of neutrality in a war-torn landscape.