Books In Conversation
David Winner with Joan Marcus
(Outpost19 Books, 2021)
David Winner’s darkly satirical third novel, Enemy Combatant, takes us to the Caucasus region during the second Bush administration, where longtime friends set off on a misguided mission to infiltrate a CIA secret prison. The action is propulsive, the narrative surreal and deeply unnerving. Haunted by recent loss, adrift in an unfamiliar land, the character’s desperate moves unwind hypnotically, their consequences in turns tragic and absurd. This is a book about American men in crisis and the missteps they make when fueled by alcohol, personal failure, and fury at their country’s war crimes. I chatted with Winner about the novel’s relevance to our current political moment and the personal journeys and experiences that feed his writing.
Joan Marcus (Rail): Enemy Combatant is being released at an extraordinary time in US history, when a former president just allowed a pandemic to rage unchecked and fomented a violent insurrection. At the start of your novel, your viewpoint character, Peter, fumes that Bush seems reasonable compared to Trump, and I absolutely relate to that. When I hear about the lovely friendship between Bush and Michelle Obama, or watch him castigate Trump for the attack on the Capitol, all I can think is, damn, we’ve sunk awfully low if George W. Bush seems like such a fine human being. What does Enemy Combatant, a book that explores Bush’s war crimes—specifically his enhanced interrogation “black sites”—mean to you in the context of this historical moment?
David Winner: Your question recalls a fantasy. The Bushes have invited the Obamas to a weekend house party in Crawford. Barack and Laura sleep in, but George and Michelle sip coffee together, looking out upon the plains. Then Michelle, kindly but fiercely, brings up enhanced interrogation. And won’t let W. Bush change the subject. When she isn’t “going high,” I’m sure she’s tough.
Pretty early on in the process of writing Enemy Combatant, Trump got elected. And, yes, Bush’s crimes began to diminish in scope. Nothing about Trump was an upside, but even though he seemed to believe that Bush-era interrogation was not “enhanced” enough, his disinterest in American military conflicts may not have given his goons many opportunities to torture people, the Mexican border aside. I’d like to imagine it as a warning as the Biden administration, a potentially more hawkish actor, takes over. The Obama administration failed to close Guantanamo or prosecute any of the war criminals of the Bush era, and I hope that some of the more progressive direction of Biden/Harris will lead to better human rights both home and abroad.
The action in my book has an eerie similarity to the attack on Congress, American “outlaw heroes” taking things into their own hands. Peter is enraged by American torture of prisoners, a proven reality, while the assholes at the Capitol were acting on fictions and delusions. But both violently break norms. I have some sympathy with my protagonists’ psychotic actions, which makes me disturbed about myself.
Rail: That seems to be the way with deeply flawed characters, doesn’t it? If they’re fully realized, we find ourselves both critical and a little sympathetic. I know I relate to that impulse to take on the system. It may not be a popular sentiment at the moment—we barely escaped Trump with our democracy intact—but I can’t say I don’t have a soft spot for characters who risk their lives speaking truth to power, even if those characters are misguided. (“Truth” being the operative word here! Fictions and delusions are another matter.)
Winner: I share that soft spot. The scene in the capitol reminded me of awkward (and much less lethal) actions with which I was involved at Oberlin College in the ’80s. We climbed through the window to take over the president’s office to push for divestment from South Africa. Then, to protest CIA murders, we occupied an administration building, draped in sheets on which we’d spilled red food dye. The following day I went to Cleveland to spend the weekend with my aunt and uncle. We saw the CIA protest on the Cleveland local news channel.My aunt and uncle were sweet about it, but it looked incomprehensible and ridiculous. No one would think CIA.
In a sense, I got to perform my fantasy of dangerous, brave political actions by making my protagonist do them, but my protagonist got darker and more disturbed as time went on. The two protagonists in my last novel, a version of Patricia Highsmith and a version of Tom Ripley, bore no obvious similarities to me. But I gave Peter my hometown, Charlottesville, and some of my experiences. His dark obsessiveness may be a part of who I am and related to my training as a male. There are more heroines these days, thankfully, but in our era, the vast majority of models for bravery were male. There was a lot of pressure on men to behave extremely in all sorts of contradictory ways—breaking laws, catching lawbreakers, jumping off cliffs, inhaling alcohol, seducing women.
Rail: I was certainly impressed by how your book complicates the masculine trope of the “buddy” adventure and the violence, impulsivity, and anger of its male characters. Was that interrogation of masculinity something that you consciously set out to explore when you started writing this book?
Winner: When I was first sketching out the idea, I wasn’t very self-conscious about gender, but I became so as I went on.
The first very abstract idea for the book struck me when my wife and I went to Vietnam about a decade ago. We saw shrines honoring the shooting down of American planes, the prison where first Vietnamese citizens, then American military (John McCain in particular), were held captive, an Angkor Wat-era temple complex with huge craters where American bombs had hit, and most strikingly, tourist tours of My Lai. Actually going on one seemed weirdly morbid, but the proximity of it led us to revisit what happened there and we learned that Lt. Calley, the primary instigator, was completely free and living in Texas, a man who helped slaughter an estimated 500 people. I first imagined what it would be like to go to Texas and try to confront him. Then my mind went to a place where it often goes when I get interested in action demanding more bravery and insanity than I have in store—a novel. A character goes to Texas to try to do the justice that the American government failed to. Of course, and here we get to the male part, even though many of the protagonists of my novels have been women, I found myself instinctually imagining a male protagonist behaving in this manner. I could easily imagine women being plenty brave enough to do something like that, but not so crazy, so cocky, so foolish.
A couple years later, I was in Tbilisi and out of warped curiosity wanted to visit someplace a little similar—Gori, Stalin’s hometown where there was a museum in his honor. It was about 90 kilometers away. Buses were difficult to negotiate without Russian or Georgian, but I’d heard that cabs were cheap. I approached a group of young men in a cab and managed to communicate what I wanted. One man offered to take me for about 10 dollars. Several of his friends jumped into the car, and I got a bit nervous (irrationally) that I’d put myself in danger. But he ended up taking me right to the museum and he kissed me on both cheeks and put his hand on his heart when I tipped him a few more dollars. It was the thought of what might have happened that gave me a starting point for the book.
I’ve never tried to write that Lt. Calley novel, but the idea of a novel about American “terrorism” stuck with me. Not terrorism like what happened recently in Washington, which is so anathema to me, but terrorism performed by someone with my, I guess I would call it, progressive ideology.
And, yes, the male bonding tradition (pranks, partying) of the protagonists does end up with tragic consequences, but perhaps more interesting to discuss, in terms of gender, is a conversation I had with Jon Roemer, the editor, about an earlier version of the novel in which Sarah, Peter’s wife, was idealized and only very vaguely rendered, which was, I think, in its own way insulting to women. The figure of some perfect female lurking in the distance of a novel with male protagonists certainly needs to be interrogated as well. I made her just a little bit obnoxious in the revised version. It would be grandiloquent to refer to that as a feminist gesture, but it was an attempt to grant her personhood.
Rail: Interesting! I will say that Sarah does seem complex to me in this final iteration. Not obnoxious exactly, but I can see where her legal mind could seem onerous to a spouse going through an emotional rough patch. Her capacity for rational decision-making is a counterweight to Peter’s unhinged romp through the Caucasus.
Speaking of which, one thing I’ve always loved about your work is how the action unfolds in a way that seems barely contained. One feels so powerfully what it’s like to be in a different country, unfamiliar with the customs or lay of the land and carried along with the action because of bad choices or things entirely beyond one’s control. It’s like being in the middle of a dream; nothing is ever predictable. It makes me wonder about your experience as a creator. Without giving anything away, did you always know where the story was going as you were writing it? Were you ever as surprised as Peter?
Winner: Well, we all have our strange methods when it comes to fiction, particularly fiction that takes us farther from our own experiences. A very practical friend of mine was once dating a writer. They would be having dinner or going for a walk when he (of course, a he!) would suddenly get struck with what I guess was inspiration and just dash off.
At strange moments, long boring walks back and forth to subway stations, waiting in waiting rooms, I move novels slowly forward. It’s trial and error, as sometimes I can’t execute what I’ve come up with, or it just doesn’t feel organic.
And, yes, being in unfamiliar, difficult-to-navigate places certainly helps. As I mentioned, the idea for this one came from the signs advertising My Lai tours and later the ride to the Stalin museum. Both experiences jolted me. One difficult thing about writing Enemy Combatant was the bridge between comedy and tragedy, the sense that something really bad had to happen as a result of the protagonists’ actions. I feel a bit guilty towards their fictional victims.
I also worry about how I cast unfamiliar cultures, that the disorientation that I try to chronicle can exoticize, romanticize, or patronize a place that is, of course, perfectly comprehensible to those who live there and speak its language. An editor once complained that this novel was stereotyping Georgians. I was annoyed at first because I didn’t really think that we had a stereotype of Georgians, but then I saw justice in it. Peter does have a really crude idea of the people surrounding him in the Caucasus and I tried to make it clearer that that perspective came from his unreliable point of view.
To go back to your original question, I’m not sure that I was as surprised as Peter, but I got surprised by Peter in the years (the writing of this book) that I was getting to know him.
Rail: Your response makes me consider the research process for Enemy Combatant and all that you’ve done to make this astounding tale convincing, both from Peter’s limited perspective and objectively. You take us from Kaş, Turkey to various sites in Georgia and Armenia and back to Turkey. Peter encounters two secret prisons, and what happens is bizarre and yet somehow entirely convincing. What did you have to do—in your real-world research or your secondary research—to make all of this hang together? I may be asking here too about the line between absurdism and realism, or research and imagination. You negotiate those so skillfully, but I know it can be a tenuous balance.
Winner: Years ago, I was taken with Kazuo Ishiguro’s claim that his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, was a “Japan of the imagination.” He was born in Japan, of course, and is Japanese, whereas I could only credibly “imagine” the United States. I did, at least briefly, visit most of the places in the novel, though not the black sites. I didn’t think myself capable of really recreating one, so I used the basic horror-show elements that we’ve all read about: the different kinds of physical and psychological torture, the use of abrasive rock music. There are memoirs of people who were there, mostly American operatives rather than prisoners, but I chose not to read them. The places in my novel were meant to be more gothic and fantastical than exactly real, and I don’t think anyone could have penetrated the real ones the way my characters penetrate the fictional ones. Yes, the line between absurdity and reality is a fine one here, so my hope is that this can work for readers as a kind of fable. One of the settings for a prison in the novel is an abandoned copper smelter in a town called Alaverde, which I did pass by. Dark, labyrinthine, rusted and abandoned, it calls to mind some Piranesi prints.
I traveled once to Georgia and Armenia and a second time just to Armenia, primarily to visit the border with Turkey, a significant location in the book. My experiences in Armenia also led me to try to write an essay called “Lies of a Lonely Planet,” because my guidebook claimed that Armenian-American collective memory of the genocide prevented Armenia from trading with Turkey while most actual Armenians were kind of past it. My experience at the Genocide memorial in Yerevan sort of suggested that, as it was devoid of people except for a very bustling night club nearby. But while no one brought up the genocide (and it didn’t seem correct of me to ask), conversations with Armenians made clear the tremendous anger with Turkey and Azerbaijan, its close ally. While we in the United States may view Armenians as victims (and they absolutely were), Armenians who I met focused more on their victories than their defeats, particularly in Karabakh, the ethnically Armenian autonomous state inside of Azerbaijan. A man I met whose professional life (an engineer, I think) got upended by the fall of the Soviet Union boasted of a great victory won by Armenian troops against mostly Afghan mercenaries fighting for Azerbaijan in which every single enemy had been assassinated. Not quite true, I was relieved to read.
Rail: It seems your journeys abroad so often inspire your writings. Has limiting your travel been difficult this year, and do you have any post-pandemic travel plans? Something related to a new project, perhaps?
Winner: Yes, I don’t like not being able to travel freely, and you’re absolutely right about the relationship between travel and fiction, though the idea makes me uncomfortable for some of the reasons that have come up in this interview—the artificiality of insight into “foreign” cultures, the sense that the only place I can really know and come close to understanding is home. I’m currently working on a project that doesn’t require travel, a family memoir stemming from a series of love letters to Dorle Jarmel, my father’s aunt, a figure in the classical music world who worked closely with Callas, Bernstein, and Toscanini. I discovered the letters (from mostly married men in the 1930s) hidden in nooks and crannies in Dorle’s Manhattan apartment long after her death. Dorle actually met several of her lovers while traveling abroad, and I do attempt to time-travel in my book (sans passport) to late ’20s Damascus.
I learned that one of Dorle’s lovers had been accused by The New York Times of running (at Goering’s behest) a “Hitlerest” party against FDR. My uncle Dario, Dorle’s husband, had fought for the Fascists in Eritrea in the early ’30s, and her brother-in-law, my grandfather, had been friendly with Mussolini. Those things may not be as shocking as they first appear because they took place in an era (a bit like ours) where the line between fascism and democracy could be blurred. I don’t know what this says about the outrageous political actions of Enemy Combatant, but I have a politically ambiguous family history. And back to your travel question, I am working on a project (too embryonic to discuss) that might take me back to Chile, a place I had visited just before the pandemic struck.