Yesterday on KEXP, morning DJ John Richards’ playlist was heavily war-themed and it got me thinking of my very first finished project — the Infamous War Novel. Most of the songs he’d chosen were the same songs I listened to in the mid to late 80s when I wrote that bulky thing. There was a lot of bleed-over between his playlist and the ‘soundtrack’ mixtapes I created then.
The IWN was borne of being a young Gen-Xer living on the back end of the Cold War. I mean, sure, I always say it was kind of inspired by those Red Dawn movies of enemy infiltration with an extremely heavy dose of Miami Vice music-as-storytelling-aid to boot. It’s me writing as a teenager, well before I even knew how to write, so grammatically and stylistically it’s thin on the ground and all over the place. I don’t hate it, but in its original form it’s rather embarrassing. Yet it still finds a warm place in my heart as my first completed work and proof that I enjoyed the hell out of writing fiction, and that maybe this gig might be worth working on long-term.
I’ve long referred to it as the IWN because I was obsessed with making it work one way or another. After I finished it in spring of 1987 and started writing other unrelated stories, I would always come back to it at some point. I tried reviving it countless times over several years. It was the project that refused to die. And I would talk about it with others at times, much to their amusement and sometimes irritation. Thus the Infamous part of its nickname. I finally gave up trying to revive it sometime in 1996 when I briefly visited it one last time after True Faith dried up but before I started The Phoenix Effect.
I still have all the paperwork and its various versions here in Spare Oom, decades later. It’s held together in multiple binders in the small bookshelf behind me. The original longhand work started in 1984 and the 1987-8 typed revision, the aborted 1987-88 sequel, the 1990-92 reimagining, the 1995 PC transcription of the original, and the 1995-6 last gasp written on the PC. And all the original mixtapes have been recreated in mp3 form.
So why think about it now? Well, I think it’s because, as that same Gen-Xer, I remember that feeling of there’s a MUCH bigger world out there than what you can even imagine, and not all of it is sunshine and roses that many of us felt back in the 80s, when we weren’t exactly at war with Russia, but we saw them as the bogeyman hiding behind a literal iron curtain, devious and scary and mysterious. They might not have always threatened us, but we never quite knew. The status could change in the blink of an eye.
And that’s why we felt that relief when the Berlin Wall came down, why that Jesus Jones song resonated with us. Why we got nervous when the first Gulf War started, and when any other war in the world kicked off. And that’s why we’re twitchy about the war in Ukraine right now — we remember what happened in our youth, and while we’re hoping that we won’t have the threat of nuclear missiles hanging over our heads this time, we certainly remember that feeling of you just don’t know. All the social media and news sites and podcasts won’t help you when they don’t have the entire story. They rarely do. [Not saying that in a cynical way, just saying it as a hopeful realist. I never depend on one specific site alone for my news and information and I’d like to think I’m well-versed in knowing which ones are honest and which are propagandist. I learned that in college, after all.]
I think, back in those days, that’s what I’d tried to infuse in the IWN. The main character — a self-insert, of course — was put in charge of his own local group of ragtag soldiers and rebels, and his story is the gradual breakdown of his emotional and mental strength as that Constant Unknown kept wearing at him. This wasn’t a story about shirtless beefcake heroes saving the world but about normal people relentlessly and continuously being put through the wringer. Would I write this kind of book now? Well, not an exact kind, but I’d maybe take parts of it that still resonate and use them in new stories. The IWN kind of reverse-glorified the Cold War, in a way; it took the 80s patriotic action film trope and subverted it into something dark and sinister. There’s a price to pay for war, and it’s never glorious.