Elliot Ackerman’s latest novel, “Waiting for Eden,” is a classic triangle story of love and friendship, a ghost story, a captivity narrative and a study of human endurance and suffering. As we learn early on, the narrator is a ghost who speaks to us from beyond the grave, describing his best friend, Eden Malcolm, who was so horrifically injured while they both served as Marines in the Hamrin Valley, Iraq, that he can only communicate using a form of tap code with his jaw. Eden has become “the most wounded man from both the wars. As advanced as medicine had become, that likely made him the most wounded man in the history of war, and they’d just kept him alive from one side of the world to the other.” It’s a story that’s been told before — a melding of Dalton Trumbo’s classic “Johnny Got His Gun” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” And yet, even if it sounds like a cover tune from another time, the relevance of Ackerman’s “Waiting for Eden” remains.
Those who have read his previous books (“Green on Blue” and the National Book Award-nominated “Dark at the Crossing”) will likely find Ackerman’s inevitable turn to the war on the home front intriguing. Those new to his work will discover a writer whose novella-sized book has a beguiling simplicity with sentences that move at an unhurried pace, all of it easily read in one sitting.
The ensemble of characters is small, a trio for the most part that includes Eden; his wife, Mary; and the narrator, Eden’s best friend and fellow Marine. They’re all flawed and imprisoned in their own way. Ackerman dips in and out of time with a braided series of vignettes that reveal the inner turmoil within each character while also building toward the book’s finale. Suffering is one of the novel’s primary themes almost to the point of being its own character. Early on, a nurse attending to Eden during transport on a C-17 “recalled something she’d read or heard once, in a place she couldn’t quite remember, about how the suffering of the world is in the suffering of the individual and that in the individual is all the world.” In San Antonio during Christmas, as another nurse touches Eden, she realizes that “beneath her finger was survival, it was what a body could and would be when battered just to the edge. It was man suffering into the anlage of whatever came next, the amphibian crawling onto land, the first primate standing upright. It was that grotesque and purest form of adaptation: life.”
Mary and the narrator both struggle with the things they’ve done — and they both visit Eden’s bedside in a kind of eternal vigil. While Mary’s reasons for continuing her watch are never fully convincing, the architecture of this triangle of primary characters works overall. Ackerman occasionally allows bits of earlier drafts to sneak into the finished product, leaving us with a line like this one: “[The nurse] sat on the edge of Eden’s bed while his uneven eyes read her face, as if looking for a hidden message, scrawled in lemon juice, one that told life to be always the right choice.” And yet, that line follows a terrific passage:
“He needed rest, but the body has a way of killing itself when it doesn’t want to go on, and she stood over him having very unscientific thoughts about how maybe this was the right way for it to be. Maybe the body knew better than the medicine.”
Suffering. Endurance. Confinement. Loyalty. Betrayal. Friendship. Love. Ackerman threads these themes throughout the novel, along with dreamscapes, hallucinations and the all-too-real visions of life in a hospital burn unit, a life caught between worlds. The language lacks lyrical flourish for the most part, though there are moments when the sentences gesture toward an overt beauty, as when “a soft coronet rested around each light” and “trestles of shadow fell across Eden’s bed.” Other lines offer hard-earned insights such as, “He craned his neck, straining to see the dark rumor of her” and “ . . . hating him in that broken way we reserve for those we truly love.”
As I read the last paragraph and set the novel down, I thought about the patients in VA hospitals across the country. “Waiting for Eden” suggests that the dead care more for the living than most of the living do for one another. It is a story that might serve as a call for compassion, or at least awareness, for those wounded in our wars — as well as their loved ones and caregivers. It’s also a reminder that battlefields extend beyond the historical maps assigned to them in history books or news reports. In part, Ackerman’s novel quietly suggests that America itself is a ghost story, and we are all in the act of waiting for Eden.
Brian Turner is the author of the memoir “My Life as a Foreign Country” and directs the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
By Elliot Ackerman. 192 pp. $22.95.