Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rachel Starnes's "The War at Home"

Rachel Starnes received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno and her BA from the University of Texas. Her essays have appeared in The Colorado Review, Front Porch Journal, and O Magazine. Born in Austin, Texas, she has lived in Scotland, Texas, Saudi Arabia, Florida, California, and Nevada, and is currently on the move again with her husband, two sons, and a puppy.

Starnes applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible): A Memoir, and reported the following:
From page 99:
There was a party in progress at Hip-Hop’s that night and everyone spilled out onto the front lawn. He gestured wildly and darted around between cops and a little knot of partygoers gathered off to one side, smoking and texting and arguing with each other. Every time a cop approached the front door, Hip-Hop headed him off. A girl with a ponytail screamed at someone on her phone and then stomped out to the street, where one of the cops had found a bullet hole in the back window of her car. The hole was small and neat. A few of my other neighbors came out to stand awkwardly in the street, talking to cops with notepads. José, a small-engine mechanic who lived next door to me and worked out of his backyard, and Mr. Enriquez, who tended a large menagerie of concrete yard animals, came out to talk, but Hip-Hop hovered within earshot and the conversations were short.

Eventually, another cop found a bullet casing in the front yard and a half-hearted cheer went up in the crowd. The cop marked the spot by picking up a child’s orange sand bucket from the flowerbed and turning it upside down over the casing. Four bullet holes were found and noted: two in Hip-Hop’s kitchen wall, one through the wall in his living room, and one in the back window of the car parked out front. I bit through the last of my fingernails and went to bed, feeling my way in the dark.

I wondered if this brush with danger and the law would chasten Hip-Hop. Maybe things would quiet down. The night after the shooting, Hip-Hop and his buddies were up welding something until dawn, the lightning stutter or spark-light flashing around the edges of the closed garage door, and then an epic party started that lasted for three days. Everyone parked only on my side of the street, and trucks raced up and down the block, letting their after-market mufflers rattle all the car alarms awake.
For a first-time memoirist grappling with the impact of having revealed so much about my past, my marriage, and my own struggles with mental health, it’s both ironic and a total relief that page 99 is actually not that much about me, but instead about an event I witnessed during which I took pains to remain hidden, purely observing. The event was a drive-by shooting directly across the street from the house my husband, Ross, and I rented during his first 7-month deployment as a Navy fighter pilot. Ultimately it was the catalyst for our moving into base housing, an option I’d previously vetoed for its echoes of the time I’d spent as a teenager living on an oil company compound in Saudi Arabia.

Like much of the book, (I’m hoping), page 99 subverts some basic expectations. Mine is the story of how I came to terms with being a Navy wife, but to tell it, I draw heavily from events that predate my marriage, sometimes by generations. It’s not a sunshine and roses story, or one where the path is smoothed by patriotic or religious bromides, but it does ultimately show my deep love and pride in my husband and his service.

The scene on page 99 highlights the awkwardness and hazard military families face when trying to find affordable off-base housing on short notice, but it also reveals some of the affection and familiarity I felt with my surrounding neighbors, who also had to put up with the target of the shooting, a scrawny white kid sporting loud clothes and an outsized swagger who Ross and I nicknamed Hip-Hop. This page marks Hip-Hop’s transition from a comical figure conducting a small-time drug operation in his garage to a menacing one whose enemies pose a threat to the neighborhood at large. It also marks my transition from ignorant, amused observer with a little too much faith in my own innate invulnerability to someone whose assumptions were suddenly under intense review—rural farming communities can have thriving, entrenched drug problems, and just because I’d lived next door to a recovering meth addict at our previous duty station in South Texas didn’t mean all addicts were harmless. Also, it no longer seemed entirely good that everyone knew my husband had just deployed, and that I’d be living alone for the next 7 months and coming home late at night from my job in another city.

At its heart, the book is about examining the roots of family patterns and how I’ve come to repeat some of my family’s more painful ones around prolonged separations, depression, and rootlessness. I’ve taken risks in what I reveal of myself on the page, but I’ve also adhered to a strict code of ethics in what I reveal of others, especially my husband, and it’s a code I labored over for a long time. I think there’s a misconception of memoir out there, that it’s something akin to peeking into someone’s diary, and that the interior glimpses revealed are confidences shared outside of their proper boundaries. This book is not a tell-all, and it doesn’t purport to speak for other military families or even the typical experience of pilots’ wives. If Ford Madox Ford is right and Page 99 has something to say about the quality of the whole, I hope it’s this: this book is not exactly what it seems to be.
Visit Rachel Starnes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue