Jason Arment reviews Freaks of a Feather by Kacy Tellessen, a war memoir forthcoming August 3, 2021. (Latah Books)
When it comes to memoir writing, war memoirs should have their own genre. Many of the rules that apply to most writing simply do not apply to war memoirs, almost as if the importance of the writing allows it to transcend the crass and arbitrary boundaries that apply to literature and are constantly changing. A war memoir can drift in and out of narrative nonfiction or exposition, it can have poetry, it can even have parts of it that are clearly fiction (but are not lies), for instance, Brian Turner’s sections from the perspective of a Japanese suicide bomber in his war memoir, My Life As a Foreign Country. What a memoir cannot be, however, is untrue, or fiction parading as fact.
Tellessen really believed in America as a kid, wanted to be a Marine his whole life, the entire bit. He was even a boy scout. When he joined the USMC and became a Machine Gunner, he was swept away in all the happy horseshit that makes Marines “Jarheads.” That is the thing about Marines and their heads: they’re oftentimes empty, just waiting to be filled. Such is the case with people at large, but most folk in American society are simply left to drift. Usually people aren’t indoctrinated to any degree, but especially not to the level of those who go through the Marine Corps experience. Taking a look at what makes a Marine a Marine is a big part of Freaks of a Feather, Tellessen’s memoir about his time in Iraq.
Barely-of-age kids are usually looking for answers while pretending to have them, and such is the case here. Tellessen is noble in motivation and intention throughout the work, although he does fall prey to the doldrums of war and the way war winnows one down to the hard edges. One thing Tellessen does very well is capture a snapshot of the USMC during the early Iraq war and the experiences Marines had. That, in and of itself, is an impressive feat only a handful of Marines will ever achieve. Not only that, but I believe this work to be literary; that is to say, it is a serious work written with enough skill to elevate it beyond the status of a simple vainglorious kill-book. This is not something I put forward lightly.
I believe this work to be literary; that is to say, it is a serious work written with enough skill to elevate it beyond the status of a simple vainglorious kill-book.
Sometimes it’s not what you did or didn’t mean then, it’s what you mean now. Anodyne works about war are usually hagiography, and a literary antirrhesis is often necessary to keep a work honest, but I think pro-war and anti-war people can read Freaks of a Feather. The architectonics of the work are fairly straightforward, as is the prose. Tellessen will not be accused of bloviating sententious rhetoric because of this work. In fact, the prose is so Spartan it makes my own prose seem like Gongorism. And as with many war memoirs, especially those written in modern times, Freaks of a Feather is a blue-collar Künstlerroman.
Tellessen is careful not to take an untenable position in the work, which includes avoiding the Iraqi Question: Was the war just? And if it was unjust, how far did we go? Tellessen is basically Captain America, a true believer. When Tellessen arrives, shit hits the fan and the morality of war takes a backseat to the leitmotif of survival. Tellessen killed some folks who were trying to kill him, but keeps his hands clean otherwise. As Tellessen stumbles through the sands, his vade mecum is The Iliad, but he doesn’t get into Taxi Driver upon his return. I’m not sure why.
One thing I’m thankful for is that Freaks of a Feather doesn’t have any obvious lies, unlike Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War—pro tip: just because an officer beats a murder charge by throwing his enlisted under the bus doesn’t make it justice. There are many examples of hagiography in war memoir writing, but I’ll stop there because it’s one of the more obvious examples. I will take a moment to once again point out that Norman Mailer stabbed his wife in the back at a party and his work should be forgotten. I’m not sure if Tellessen has ever, or will ever, stab his wife nearly to death, but I doubt it. He’s just not that kind of guy. Tellessen is genuinely a hero, which is where he and I differ, as I’m an anti-hero.
How does Freaks of a Feather stack up to Musalaheen, my own war memoir about being a Machine Gunner in Iraq? It’s fairly easy to explain in the terms of Warhammer 40,000: Freaks of a Feather was written by a Marine in The Imperium and Musalaheen was screamed by Chaos Marines. Tellessen wants to do the right thing. I want more blood for the blood god.