Jason Arment reviews the book As You Were by David Tromblay and interviews the author. (Dzanc Books)
Book Review: As You Were
Reviewing a book like As You Were is tough because it’s like looking into the sun, when merely observing becomes a challenge.
The chronicle of a young boy on a Native American reservation was not what I thought it would be, mostly because the author, David Tromblay, has a father who is little more than a raging bully who doesn’t hesitate to pick up his son by the neck, slam him against a wall, and then beat him until urine fills the boy’s shoes. It’s a tough pill to swallow as a reader, to simply bear witness to such horrible misdeeds, especially when the boy attempts suicide early in the book. But escape is ever elusive in this world, and David is not afforded such an easy exit. Eventually David does a tour of Iraq where he works in a detention facility. His time there seemed to me the most normal in the book; but then again, I occupied Iraq as a Machine Gunner in the USMC, so, maybe take that with a grain of salt.
The prose in this book levels a steady and easy-going narration from the author, one that lulls and soothes the reader despite the dark and terrible scenes the text composes. And that’s just perfect for a work such as this, where asking a reader to bear witness is nearly too much, so, adding a bunch of Latin words or likewise “smart” stuff would drown whoever swam the currents of prose. And much to David’s credit, I ended up having a nightmare about his father. The punishment the prose hammers into your brain may imprint onto parts of your psyche you can explore further. I have some pretty crazy dreams anyway thanks to PTSD and the medication I take, so dreaming about myself as David, curled up in a ball, while a father figure attempts to kick my head in, honestly wasn’t even something that woke me up, but it did give me pause the next day.
As You Were is a book that will stick with you because it’s honest, even when a lot of bad things are happening. I would have liked a macro look at the events on the page, though. Throughout the work, politics are ignored, almost dutifully. This wasn’t so noticeable until David ends up a quasi-warden of a POW camp, at which point I would have liked some reflection on how the oppressed had turned into the oppressor. I think such self-awareness is important, especially now that Iraq was undeniably an enormous waste of time and resources. There are other parts of the book where David takes the time to slow down and observe the world, such as certain racial realities on the reservation. Globally, there are similar realities that are harsh to account for, especially when one is a citizen of the United States of America. But I can see where expediency could have been more important, especially considering how overtly exploring politics in a piece of literary writing can really derail the story, a story that will most likely manifest the world a deep dive into politics would attempt to formulate.
There is a lot going on in this piece of literature. More than just a kid growing up hard. To think the book is just about child abuse and making sure a bunch of Iraqis don’t escape, and to think that’s the alpha and omega of this memoir is reductionist at best, and revisionist at worst. But no matter how you slice it, you’re going to have some cold prickly feelings while you read this book. It was hard for me to escape the feelings of guilt I have reading about the existence eked out on the reservation by the indigenous people of North America. Though I would have it another way, it simply is not. But what simply is is that this book is worth your time. It will make you feel more than it will make you talk, and you will most likely be compelled to talk about this book. This isn’t something you’re not ready for, I can promise you that.
Interview: David Tromblay
What was it like working with the traumatic events in the memoir? Did you use any special techniques to create distance from these events?
Breathing life back into those years and people was a nightmare, except I knew the ending. I sought zero distance when writing As You Were. I hunt-and-pecked these stories with my middle fingers. I’m joking. I used all of my digits, but the sentiment was the same with every keystroke. I cried at points while writing these stories down. Rum and bourbon lubricated some of these stories, too. Lots of teeth grinding. The laughs came later.
How do you reconcile the facets of your identity that historically have been opposing forces?
When considering that aspect of myself, I look for the commonalities—now. When I was younger, I believed I didn’t belong in, or to, either group. “Go back to where you belong” always did and still does confuse me. That almost carries over to today, in that I won’t ever want to see a hyphenate before my being a writer or professor, and so on—even military veteran-writer. I believe when you allow that, certain readers look at you as representative of said group. I want no part of that. I don’t know if I should be my own spokesperson all the time. That may be why I used the second-person. Psychologists used it in hypnosis, and I wanted the reader to feel as hypnotized as a bystander. Even if you have the same story as me, at some point, you and I were a passive-bystander in our own stories. That’s how I found the point of telling: from the second-person point of view.
What is your writing process?
I edit as I go, get out the story while trying to give it all of the urgency it demands. Finished projects are printed off and put away for at least a month. Editing is where my detachment kicks in when craft becomes the concern. The final draft of As You Were was 286-pages long. Now, as a continuous document, it is a stout 220-pages.
Were you worried about your family’s reaction to As You Were?
No. I wrote this book to solidify my father’s history before he died and attained a mythology built on his version of things. He successfully bullied people into silence or turning a blind eye for his entire life. That said, the people who appear within the book are either abusers, enablers, passive-bystanders, or those who helped me survive: my sister Deb, my best friend Jeremy, my Grandpa Bub, Bones—along with a few other supporting cast members. If someone recognizes their actions in this book but doesn’t see their name in print and have a complaint, they are telling on themselves. They are unnamed because they are still alive. I know, they know, and I haven’t forgotten their actions. Now, it’s in print. As You Were puts an end to being seen and not heard.
What other projects do you have in the works?
Lots. First, I have a Dystopian novel, The Essentials, coming out on Inauguration Day from Whisk(e)y Tit Books. That one I wrote while working on my MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts back in (2016-2018). I had a job as a medical courier, which is the subject of the chapter, “Drive On,” in As You Were. Sitting alone with your thoughts in a delivery truck for eight hours a day will take your mind to all different places. Then on April 23, 2021, the kickoff to my crime novel series, Sangre Road, will be published by Shotgun Honey Books. I am currently working on the sequel for that book as my main project and have three other projects that I am revising as well. I have about the same number of short stories (possible novels) in their infancy.