Interview by Andy Davis
This novel is based on your past work at a New York City law firm defending big insurance companies being sued by soldiers returning from contracting jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan. What inspired you to fictionalize your professional experiences and write about this?
The people I worked for aren’t bad people and they were good to me. But I still had problems with how the legal system operates. The book is, in a way, a protest against its unjustness and crudeness. Fiction allowed me to recreate the emotions and problematic elements of the job in a more sophisticated way than I could have in a confessional personal essay or long-form article.
Much of the inspiration also came from my personal life at the time. After a long hiatus while attending law school, studying for the bar exam, learning the ropes of a new profession, the urge to write returned around the same time my marriage ended and I got my son’s mother pregnant. So there was this confluence of events. I picked up a copy of Norman Mailer’s “The Spooky Art” in which he explains the importance of writing from the inside, whether you’re a stockbroker or a quarterback. It was more harvesting the world I was in to serve the story than drawing any specific inspiration from being a lawyer.
When one first hears that former soldiers are suffering from PTSD and suing for disability benefits, one naturally roots for them against the mega-insurance companies. But the reality is a bit more complicated.
A lot of these guys were gung-ho for war, giving little thought to the consequences of heading off to a foreign land and subjecting themselves and innocent people to violence. Post-9/11, there was this strange concoction of patriotism and opportunity. There were private army mechanics making far more per hour cleaning carburetors on a military base in Afghanistan than they ever would at home. Then the job ends, and they’re sent home, usually to, for lack of a better term, red state America. So you have multitudes of capable men returning home from the wars and their options are limited. As their frustrations mount, they develop back pain, which means they start receiving prescriptions for opioids. Then their shoulders ache, or they recall experiencing some mental trauma. The longer they’re idle, all this shit starts bubbling to the surface. Then they apply for worker’s comp and when the claims are denied they hire a plaintiff’s lawyer to sue for comp payments and medical expenses. The lawyers sherpa these guys into the claims system, which they do for a profit. So these fully capable American men who rushed off to well-paying jobs in war zones find themselves trapped in a death spiral of dependency, drugs, entitlement, bitterness, resentment.
The characters in the book are interacting with each other at a cruel nexus in the system that underpins our modern world. They’re operating at the intersection of the military industrial complex, the legal and financial systems, the medical profession, and it’s all happening within the toxic fabric of modern-day American politics. Are your characters defined by their socio-economic status and their jobs? Do they have free agency?
The characters who lack an advanced education, such as Thomas, the returning soldier, they lack free agency. They are trapped in a miasma of need and dependency and addiction. Which is interesting because growing up in the ’80s and ’90s this was the narrative about black America, inner-city America, and that narrative has shifted somewhat to rural, white America. And that’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we are in now, because we have this entire white population that is not only desperate, but indignant, entitled, and that considers itself superior. It’s a kind of white superiority borne out of depression and patriotism.
Is there any way to fix what’s broken here? Is there a way this can all be more humane?
I recently watched a documentary on American radicalization and there was an interview with a former NYPD official who said that since 9/11 this country essentially suffers from PTSD. And I think that’s true. And when you have PTSD, you hurt yourself and you hurt people around you. This is a deeply divided, hurting country right now and those divisions and that hurt is being exploited for political advantage and for profit. I don’t know how you convince an entire country to be more mindful of what it is doing to itself, especially when it has no history of being mindful and the dominant popular culture is either mindlessness or cruelty. And I think this national mental pain is connected to the pursuit of profits. If someone returns home from working in a war zone as a private soldier and they are legitimately injured, the focus should be on obtaining treatment, not a pay-off. But the private soldier needs the pay-off to survive because he can’t work. And then his lawyer will pursue the pay-off for his fee, and then the lawyers he is chasing will defend the insurance company for a fee, and the insurance company doesn’t want to pay because it has the premiums wrapped-up in the markets, which in turn is earning other people’s fees. The pursuit of money through adversarial litigation is not therapeutic. It is ugly, but it is also to some degree necessary because for every legitimately-wounded military contractor there are four guys milking the compensation system for Percocet and deer hunting equipment.
So much of the book touches on socio-political issues that came home to roost in the 2016 election. What insights about US politics and its dysfunction did you glean from your vantage point?
The book was written in what was falsely perceived as this kind of golden age of Obama. The urban/suburban Obama constituency was, and perhaps still is, completely oblivious to a white soldier in rural North Carolina who has returned home from Afghanistan missing a hand. Or a white police officer who signed on as a military contractor to train Afghan police officers to put his kids through college and comes home to Colorado and now drinks a 12-pack of beer a night to manage his PTSD. Or the VA hospital prescribing opioids by the bucket. It was all out there, over there, on the other side of the rural/urban divide, past the exurbs. Where the others lived. The white others. That gap is perhaps bridgeable; it has to be bridged, but we need to get to some point where we respect one another. Respect the viewpoints of those whose opinions don’t comport with ours. But as a country this is not in our national DNA, so I suspect this is going to burn for a long time.
Did seeing this ugly intersection of mental illness, war, and profit leave you feeling cynical? How do you square it with your personal take on the world?
I don’t think it made me cynical. It made me depressed. There was a man, a former soldier and military contractor, who killed himself because of a $75,000 gap between what the insurance company would pay (the same insurance company that wrecked the economy by insuring mortgage-backed securities) and what this man’s lawyer demanded. When the parties failed to close the gap at mediation, and the case didn’t settle, he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. To work through the depression I brought it all in and then filtered it through the novel. Which is probably why the book has such an aggressive tone.