Novelist and short-story writer Douglas Unger used to be a journalist, carrying credentials for UPI, originally as a photographer, then as a stringer on assignments across the United States and Latin America. He eventually wrote essays for the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour before turning to fiction.
"My great moment came when I was having a terrible argument with the producer [of McNeil-Lehrer] over whether you could really call a president a liar," said Unger in a recent interview, referring to a story about a deceptive public demonstration by then-President Ronald Reagan.
Unger's work, including Looking for War, his new collection of short stories and a novella, walks that tightrope between truth and fiction, between what we see and what's illusion, between dream and reality.
In the title story, a young man with a shell-shocked Vietnam vet brother longs to see what war is all about and naively wanders the jungles of Paraguay as a foreign correspondent, in search of a guerilla fighter to interview. What happens when he witnesses an actual battle shatters his romantic notions about men and war.
With the news of prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the administration's and press's attempts to deflect blame and attention away from the White House and the Pentagon, Unger says he doesn't know why we're all so surprised.
"To me this is no news," he said. "I think of the School of the Americas in Fort Benning where they were teaching interrogation tactics to foreign policemen ... tactics that violated U.S. law. To me, it's old news."
Unger, director of the MFA International Program in Creative Writing at University of Las Vegas and the author of four novels, including one that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (Leaving the Land), says his job isn't to make policy statements, but as an artist, to react in a lucid, constructive way.
Looking for War started out as Unger's response to the invasion of Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I live with a 100 percent disabled war veteran, my brother," he explained. "I wanted to explore that ideology about what young men are supposed to do, that young men are supposed to look for war. Our society pushes the idea that it is an honorable thing to do, and it is an honorable thing.
"But there must also be the confrontation of the reality of [war], that it's damaging, horrific, traumatizing."
Less grave but equally as incisive are the short stories in the collection, many of them addressing the masquerades that occur within and around intimate relationships.
"The Writer's Widow" explores the death of a literary figure, and the widow who exploits his memory and his work.
A French biographer has accused Unger of writing directly about short-story writer Raymond Carver, his widow and questionable versions of Carver's work that have appeared posthumously.
"In Argentina, where the book has been published in Spanish translation, everyone thinks it's a critique of Jorge Luis Borges' widow," said Unger, describing the story as a fiction based on a legacy of similar events.
"I was one of the six people who carried Ray Carver's body to the grave," he said, "so yes, I was responding to his death and to the chaos I saw happening. I was also thinking of Mary Hemingway and how she resurrected her husband's 'work' after his death; I was thinking of Chekhov's widow who guarded his biography for 50 years after his death; I was thinking of the whole writer's widow syndrome."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Looking for War and Other Stories by Douglas Unger (Ontario Review Press: Princeton, N.J.)