These Heroic, Happy Dead by Luke Mogelson

mogelson2.jpgWith his harrowing debut, Luke Mogelson provides an unsentimental, unflinching glimpse into the lives of those forever changed by war. Subtle links between these ten powerful stories magnify the consequences of combat for both soldiers and civilians, as the violence experienced abroad echoes through their lives in America.

Troubled veterans first introduced as criminals in “To the Lake” and “Visitors” are shown later in “New Guidance” and “Kids,” during the deployments that shaped their futures. A seemingly minor soldier in “New Guidance” becomes the protagonist of “A Human Cry,” where his alienation from society leads to a shocking confrontation. The fate of a hapless Gulf War veteran who reenlists in “Sea Bass” is revealed in “Peacetime,” the story of a New York City medic’s struggle with his inurement to calamity . A shady contractor job gone wrong in “A Beautiful Country” is a news item for a reporter in “Total Solar,” as he navigates the surreal world of occupied Kabul.  Shifting in time and narrative perspective—from the home front to active combat, between experienced leaders, flawed infantrymen, a mother, a child, an Afghan-American translator, and a foreign correspondent–these stories offer a multifaceted examination of the unexpected costs of war.

Here is an evocative, deep work that charts the legacy of an unprecedented conflict, and the burdens of those it touched. Written with remarkable empathy and elegance, These Heroic, Happy Dead heralds the arrival of an extraordinary new talent.*

I don’t normally read collections of short stories or stories about modern-day wars, but I decided to give this book a try because I am attempting to keep my extracurricular readings varied in subject and genre. While this is not necessarily the sort of thing I would regularly pick up, given the heavy emotional tone found throughout all of the stories, it offers a great glimpse into the effects that war has not only on those overseas fighting but on their families and others as well.

These stories tend to jump immediately into the action and hint at the past as they progress rather than giving the reader a clear view of the events leading up to the present moment. There is a lot of guesswork at the end of some of the stories as well, the author choosing not to always state the outcome, allowing readers to interpret what takes place for themselves.

Each story has a slightly different perspective; some are told from the point of view of the soldiers themselves, while others come from sons, mothers, etc. The settings vary as well, some stories taking place stateside and others happening in Afghanistan. All are wrought with emotional trauma, PTSD, alcoholism, and abuse. Some naturally deal with religion.

The author is able to paint a scene without weighing the story down with too much description. There are often snapshots of scenes, like a flashbulb memory, rather than lengthy portraits of where each speck of dust landed. In some of the stories, much of the action and motives behind it are portrayed through dialogue and readers must determine who is trustworthy and who is warping things to fit their own agenda. Similarly, excuses are never made for the actions of characters. There is no “well, so and so killed this man, but he did it because of the emotional trauma he suffered overseas.” Readers may choose to empathize or condemn.

Just a heads up to people who do not like animal cruelty/violence–there are many animal injuries and deaths in these stories. I’m pretty positive at least one animal dies in each. There are, of course, horrible human injuries and deaths as well but I feel like that goes without saying in a collection about war.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in how war, particularly those being fought today, affects those who fight as well as the people around them. Mogelson is a great writer and his stories will definitely stick with you for some time.

*Cover image and synopsis are from I received a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


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