(Spoiler warning: This post contains plot descriptions for Clint Van Winkle's "Soft Spots".
To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
On the surface, Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots is incredibly similar to Jarhead. (Read our Jarhead review here.) Both are creative types who went to college after a gulf war to learn creative writing. Both books open with a "going through old gear" scene. Both lose friends after the war. Both are works with literary aspirations--Jarhead more so--and both experiment with narrative.
The primary difference is that Clint Van Winkle wrote a good, but by no means perfect, book.
The title refers, vaguely, to those "soft spots" soldiers feel when returning from a war, particularly veteran's struggles with PTSD and post-war life. Death haunts Van Winkle, particularly those deaths he caused. Most of the book takes place in Arizona after Van Winkle has come home from the war, though it jumps back in time—for the most part effectively—to cover Van Winkle’s experience manning a turret during the invasion of Iraq. In the present, he takes college courses that bore him, drinks himself into oblivion, and relives his warexperience. Quickly he receives a diagnosis of PTSD, denies it, and then accepts it.
The memoir, because it is based on real life, lacks a satisfying conclusion. At the end, Van Winkle, in a seemingly random decision, moves to Wales and his problems conveniently evaporate. He also has an epilogue on a new treatment of PTSD that feels really out of place, an attempt to bring closure to something that can’t be closed; to a problem that one new cure cannot solve.
There are other flaws in Soft Spots. The whole thing reads like a confessional; the book is writing-as-therapy exercise in a way. And if I'm being intellectually honest, I kind of hate that type of writing. Van Winkle barely pulls it off. His sheer honesty helps, like when Van Winkle opens with a passage about threatening to kill his wife that is so raw, you can’t help being moved. But at the same time, his immediate analysis of the event is too manufactured; he writes best when he forgets he is writing.
The message of the book, at least one of them, is good. Van Winkle goes to war angry and blood-thirsty, looking to kill but that isn't the came Van Winkle that returns home. He explains the change when talking with his grandfather.
"When I got back from Iraq, and saw my Grandpa, we talked about war again. However, we talked about it in a different manner than we had years earlier. We talked about the places we saw, and the friends we gained. We bypassed the death and shooting. Our wars were sixty years apart but weren't really any different. It didn't matter how many years separated our wars or where we traveled to fight them. Blood still dried the same way around wounds, and charred bodies still crusted over the same as they always have. It didn't matter that he'd fought in a "good war" and I'd fought in a controversial war; because the effect turned out to be the same: Neither of us could find anything praiseworthy about combat."
Again, the strength of this chapter is limited by the incomplete narrative. His change from gung-ho warrior into regretful veteran seems incongruous; it happened off the page somewhere. When did he become less violent? When did he connect with his emotions? I don't know, neither will you. Like real life, it probably happened over time but this makes for unsatisfying reading.
Despite all the honesty, you still believe that Van Winkle isn't telling you something. The book feels self-censored, like he looked into his soul but decided to only give you ninety percent. It makes the whole entire exercise feel hollow.
Overall, this is a good book, one of the better war memoirs I've read so far. It is honest, has a good message, and overall there is more to like than dislike in Soft Spots. I still think it would have worked better as a novel—Clint would have been freer to establish a better story structure and write a more honest book—but it works fine right now as memoir.