Louis Gulino

In the era of the War on Terror, it is common for soldiers to serve two, three, even four tours of duty. Yet even after 11 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the consequences of repeated deployment remain largely hidden from view. Brian Castner’s new memoir, The Long Walk, shatters stereotypes about the private wars that veterans fight once they return home. Throughout his raw and compelling narrative, Castner meditates on whether soldiers lament or celebrate their redeployment, arguing that it can offer a very real, if ironic, sense of relief from the pressures at home.

At the very least, redeployment allows soldiers to put the skills they learned on the battlefield back into practice—skills that have little place in civilian life. An electrical engineer-turned-Air Force officer, Castner earned a Bronze Star as the commander of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit in Iraq. After two tours disarming improvised weapons in Balad and Kirkuk, Castner began to experience extreme bouts of anxiety at home. He calls his debilitating combination “the Crazy”— a combination of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. In an especially poignant passage, he compares his condition to feeling like you’re stuck in a classroom on the last day of school, taking an exam, while your friends shout at you from outside to finish. It’s an itch, an unbearable restlessness, with no promise of relief.

For the veterans living with PTSD or TBI, and for those active-duty soldiers exhausted by their redeployment schedules, the powerful story of Castner’s sacrifice and hard-fought personal victories may prove cathartic. For the rest of us, The Long Walk is an invaluable look into the private, lonely wars waged by those who fight on our behalf.

In the era of the War on Terror, it is common for soldiers to serve two, three, even four tours of duty. Yet even after 11 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the consequences of repeated deployment remain largely hidden from view. Brian Castner’s new memoir, The Long Walk, shatters stereotypes about the private […]

Imagine you’re walking the corridors of a dusty museum. A docent approaches and leads you to an exhibit showcasing artifacts from ancient Egypt. Suddenly, the docent transforms into Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. He opens a dimly lit display case, reaches for a clay urn and offers it to you, telling you that it has the power to grant everlasting life. Would you grab hold? Or would you consider the consequences?

In his ambitious and engrossing new book, Immortality, Stephen Cave invites us to reflect on the implications of perpetual existence, arguing that whether we know it or not, every decision we make is driven by our desire to outlast death. Part historical narrative, part philosophical treatise, Immortality examines the spectrum of human accomplishment through the unique lens of our collective obsession with living forever.

Cave’s fascinating study identifies four imperatives—what he calls the “immortality narratives”—which account for nearly every feature of civilization, from advances in modern medicine to the development of sophisticated religious systems, politics and the arts. These “immortality narratives” include our biological will to survive, foundational myths of bodily resurrection, the notion of “soul” or spiritual essence, and our culture, defined here as the material legacies we leave behind for future generations. Cave makes the case for understanding civilization via these immortality narratives by supporting them with rich historical anecdotes. For example, in order to illustrate how the biological survival narrative manifests today—like, say, the popular belief in the purported health benefits of Greek yogurt—Cave recounts tales from ancient China about the Emperor Qin’s quest for a magic serum capable of prolonging life indefinitely.

These anecdotes read more like excerpts from an adventure novel than evidence supporting hard scholarship. While Cave was trained as a philosopher—in fact, Immortality grew from his doctoral work at Cambridge—he has spent much of his career writing features for newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian. The way he seamlessly blends theory, research and narrative into a coherent and accessible whole testifies to the breadth of his talents as a writer.

The greatest strength of Immortality, then, is its capacity to appeal to readers of all stripes. You won’t need a degree in philosophy to find Cave’s argument compelling, or to appreciate the fifth “immortality narrative” he proposes in his concluding remarks, which is by any measure an elegant and appropriate solution to the problem he sets out. At one point or another we’ve all asked ourselves whether we would take Osiris’ urn if given the chance. We all share in our mortality, and reading Cave’s text reminds us that we each have a stake in the great traditions, legacies and narratives our civilization has built to keep death at bay.

Imagine you’re walking the corridors of a dusty museum. A docent approaches and leads you to an exhibit showcasing artifacts from ancient Egypt. Suddenly, the docent transforms into Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. He opens a dimly lit display case, reaches for a clay urn and offers it to you, telling you that it […]

Like the harrowing tales of swashbuckling pirates and square-jawed detectives in vintage pulp magazines, each beautifully crafted essay in John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection Pulphead is a self-contained world. But where the hodgepodge content of a pulp rag leaps from one escapist fantasy to another, Sullivan's masterful essays invite an honest confrontation with reality, especially when considered in light of one another. By highlighting features of American life as diverse as a Christian rock festival in Pennsylvania, ancient caves and their modern-day explorers in Mississippi, the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the King of Pop, Pulphead compels its readers to consider each as an equal sum in the bizarre arithmetic of American identity.

Much of Sullivan’s magazine work for GQ, Harper's and the Paris Review has found its way into this collection, which is fine because the genius of these essays comes from reading them as constituents of Pulphead's patchwork narrative, not in isolation. After skimming the table of contents, you're not quite sure how, or whether, a somber reflection on the state of the Gulf Coast after Katrina will segue successfully into a meditation on the cult of reality television. But it works somehow, and more often than not it works eerily well; that you'll likely find it easy to supply such transitions for yourself, with only a gentle nudge from Sullivan, is a testament to how extraordinarily nimble his writing is.

This sensitivity is most clearly on display in the portraits Sullivan paints of the people who populate his essays. The characters he encounters in his tour of Americana often take on three-dimensional depth with only minimal description. Sullivan can also be devastatingly funny. His account of hauling a 29-foot RV up a steep hill with the help of five West Virginian woodsmen rings with as much absurdity and wit as anything the giants of New Journalism ever put to paper.

It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that Sullivan begins Pulphead by quoting Norman Mailer. In his resignation letter from Esquire magazine in 1960, Mailer writes, “Good-by now, rum friends, and best wishes. You got a good mag (like the pulp-heads say). . . .” Interesting that Sullivan excludes the second half of the quotation, in which Mailer warns Esquire’s editorial board, “you print nice stuff, but you gotta treat the hot writer right or you lose him like you just lost me.”

Omitting Mailer’s punch line is likely Sullivan’s attempt at humility, but make no mistake, he’s as red-hot a writer as they come.

Like the harrowing tales of swashbuckling pirates and square-jawed detectives in vintage pulp magazines, each beautifully crafted essay in John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection Pulphead is a self-contained world. But where the hodgepodge content of a pulp rag leaps from one escapist fantasy to another, Sullivan's masterful essays invite an honest confrontation with reality, especially when […]

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