What Can We Steal From Okla Elliott’s “The Long Walk Home”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Long Walk Home,” short story
Author: Okla Elliott
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in the Press 53 Spotlight Anthology 2011 and was subsequently published in Elliott’s debut short story collection, From the Crooked Timber.  Why not purchase the book directly from the small press that published it: Press 53?  Yes, yes.  You can also purchase it from Amazon.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
War has always been a popular topic in literature because of the way it traffics in extremes.  The opposing sides are devout in their belief that they are defending hearth and home.  The individuals involved struggle with their desire to live and their reticence to kill.  Moments of beauty and grace are entwined with representations of brutal cruelty.  The literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has already begun to be written and Okla Elliott has added “The Long Walk Home” to this body of works.

“The Long Walk Home” depicts the homecoming of Reynolds, a soldier who is returning from the Middle East.  Reynolds has lost a leg and has a prosthetic replacement.  (Elliott provides some interesting details about the leg.  Indeed, “most people don’t think of prosthetic legs as having batteries.”)  Reynolds gets off the plane and charges his leg.  Reynolds waits at baggage claim.  Reynolds thinks about his friends, some of whom were not supportive of his enlistment.  The narrator moves from the narrative to tell the story of why Reynolds enlisted: he was good with Arabic.  Reynolds remembers an old girlfriend and she picks him up and brings him home.  He drinks and they engage in a romantic encounter that is tainted somewhat by why I am guessing is PTSD.

What do all of these story beats have in common?  They’re all very passive on Reynolds’ part, aren’t they?  Isn’t this appropriate?  After all, Reynolds was in theater for a long time and was very much out of control what happened in his life.  The Army told him what to do and where to go.  Insurgents determined he would lose his leg and would witness unspeakable violence.  After such trauma, it is fitting that Reynolds would be somewhat passive and lose agency in his own life.

On the final page, Elliott allows Reynolds to emerge from his slumber somewhat.  And what unlocks the key?  The mingling of sex and violence.  What greater influences are there on the psyche of a young adult male?  Especially one that has been through so much?  The story is beautiful and vital because the reader experiences the psychological change Reynolds is feeling.  That change is demonstrated through the contrast between passive and active, between being carried along by life and forging one’s own path and between fighting an enemy because of orders and fighting him because of an inner sense of justice.

One way that Elliott makes the depiction of violence visceral for the reader is in the narration.  There’s a very cool turn that occurs a few pages into the story.  A man at the airport offers to sell Reynolds a doll.  (It’s no coincidence that one of the doll’s eyes is dangling from its socket.)  The narrator recounts:

The man’s face reminded Reynolds of a housewife in Qatar whose husband he’d been ordered to detain.  She was veiled from head to toe, and all he could see were those eyes, wet with accusation and plea.  She thrust money at him, a fistful of coins worth maybe half an American dollar.  Her husband struggled in his binds and a soldier brought his book down on the man’s jaw.  A tooth splintered and blood dribbled forth.

 

“All right,” Reynolds said to the man with the Indian doll, pulling out his wallet and handing him the first bill he found.

See what Elliott did?  There was no transition between the memory and the present tense, implying that this is the thought process that is happening inside Reynolds all the time.  Just like in the story, Reynolds experiences a short episode in the present tense before feeling a memory that is related to the sad drama he witnessed.

Elliott’s story illustrates what may be the great (and necessary) contradiction of the soldier.  He or she simply must act according to orders and kill without thinking, willfully tossing away his or her humanity.  On the other hand, the soldier must maintain the humanity necessary to defend fellow soldiers to the death and to return home, turning swords into ploughshares.

What Should We Steal?

  • Structure your close third-person narrator in a manner that resembles the thoughts of your focal character.  Reynolds is haunted by memories of the war and daunted by the prospect of returning to “normal” life.  The narrator, therefore, commingles both kinds of thoughts, allowing the reader to experience the character’s psychological conflict.
  • Build character and tone through juxtaposition.  Think of the friends with whom you haven’t spoken in a while.  Are you ever shocked by what they have become and achieved?  Wow…Bob was still eating paste in ninth grade and now he’s a chef?  The guy who peed on your shoe during gym class and goofed off every single day is now a doctor?  The shock comes from the juxtaposition.  Reynolds is passive through the whole story and the reader feels an emotional catharsis because he is motivated to some kind of action at the end of the story.

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