Even before they stormed the secret compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the Navy SEALs were men of legend. Their punishing training and especially their death-defying missions elevate them to the status of godlike warriors at a time when our nation prefers to rain down lethal force by joystick. Not surprisingly, amid the thousands of titles inspired by 9/11 and its aftermath, we need many shelves just for the books about Special Ops men — from the dramatic histories and CIA-approved memoirs to the attendant thrillers, diet books, children’s stories and, yes, romance novels, all featuring Navy SEALs.
This summer, some big guns have been firing for a quiet work of military fiction by a first-time novelist named Lea Carpenter. She was a founding editor of the literary journal Zoetrope, earned an MBA from Harvard and worked for the New York Public Library, a résuméwhich may not suggest much affinity for SEALs. But her father was a soldier, and “Eleven Days” has been praised by — among others — former senator Bob Kerrey, a SEAL himself in Vietnam; and former Army machine gunner Kevin Powers, whose Iraq war novel, “The Yellow Birds,” was a finalist for the National Book Award.
It’s easy to see why these thoughtful, real-life veterans would be drawn to this story. Despite its tight, thriller title, “Eleven Days” is largely a novel of stillness and reflection. It delivers scenes of military adventure eventually, but not until we’ve soaked up the muted anxiety of a single mother named Sara waiting for news. In the opening paragraph, Sara “is no longer sure what she fills her days with.” Her only son, Jason, a 27-year-old Navy SEAL, has been missing for nine days. Two officers have come to her house in rural Pennsylvania and told her that they have “a general idea of where he was, but that they could not tell her any more than that.” She can stand not knowing where he is — he’s never been able to tell her any details about his secret operations — but not knowing if he’s dead or alive has blanched her days in terror. And yet she must sit gracefully in this crucible of fear while reporters and TV crews buzz around the end of her driveway, hoping to catch some award-winning image of grief or delight when the news finally arrives. Neighbors clean her house and bring covered dishes; politicians express a grateful nation’s concern; someone donates a new refrigerator. “She did not hear most of what was said or remember who had said it,” Carpenter writes. “She knew that things like sleeping and eating were necessary but remembered to do them only when prodded.”
While trapping Sara in that claustrophobic setting that constrains all her activity to the frozen movements of waiting, Carpenter keeps “Eleven Days” in motion by constantly slipping back in time. Short scenes show us Sara’s brief affair with a much older CIA operative. We see their son, Jason, as an artistic little boy, an impervious football player and a determined new recruit — one of that great wave of people drawn to military service by the flames of the twin towers. Carpenter is particularly sympathetic to Sara’s struggle to understand and accept the purity of Jason’s patriotism, a feeling her own hippie parents couldn’t have fathomed. “She’d never known what love of country meant,” Carpenter writes, “until she’d observed her son, and seen him develop his own instinct for it.”
Jason’s stoic demeanor and Herculean stature, his appreciation for the classics and his deep regard for his mom — all these golden qualities should render this young patriot about as lifelike as the Statue of Liberty. But Carpenter’s greatest accomplishment here may be her success at creating an Olympian warrior who seems entirely human, modest and decent. As she puts it, “The military’s culture suited him: its ethos of invisibility matched his.” Short, intimate scenes, told in restrained, unsentimental prose, present him just that way: a great serviceman who has no regard for the trappings of greatness. Regardless of your politics, as you watch Jason nervously train for “drown-proofing,” or encourage another frightened recruit, or rehearse a complicated mission so that no unarmed civilians will be hurt, it’s impossible not to swell with pride for these people who devote their lives to the United States.
As a novel, though, this mission is not without some snafus. At times, Carpenter seems almost allergic to excitement, unwilling to let her scenes gather the power they naturally possess. These are, after all, the coolest guys in the world engaged in the most harrowing missions of the past decade. But too often, in the middle of some gripping ordeal, the author breaks in with flat-footed explanations of military service or historical context, spraying flame-retardant all over her pages.
And a tougher editor should have defended Carpenter from clunky observations that sometimes strafe these paragraphs: “Having seen one too many things he is not sure he can ever forget, he will slowly start to relearn how to access his feelings. . . . Controlling emotion when op tempo is high isn’t a skill; it is an art.” Medic! Grandiose lines that reduce characters to psychological cliches are particularly deadly: “Having grown up without a man in his life, he was now determined to pass the world’s hardest test for becoming one.” In a novel as svelte as this one, such slips sound off-key.
More problematic is some needless melodrama involving Jason’s late father, which distracts from the novel’s starkly realistic tone. And worse, there’s Jason’s never-named “godfather,” a string-pulling political operative who adds nothing but a cheesy swirl of intrigue to a novel that boasts plenty of native intrigue.
Fortunately, none of these missteps shatters the story’s absorbing progress or mars its solemn conclusion. Carpenter’s intelligence and sincerity find powerful expression in the novel’s sophisticated structure, which finally merges past and present. Although her frequent allusions to epic war poetry emphasize the persistence of ancient values, “Eleven Days” makes plain that something fundamental has changed since the days of the Argonauts. Today’s Jasons fight in ways the world has never seen — and may never publicly see. But this story reminds us that each of these warriors, no matter how brave and tough and deadly, is still some woman’s beloved son.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Lea Carpenter
Knopf. 270 pp. $24.95