"A Walk in the Garden" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by David Moles
I must have been thirteen when Lucius Shepard first blew my mind. The story was called "R&R," and if you haven't read it you might have read Life During Wartime, the novel it grew into, or grew out of. I was a kid in love with the war toys my folks wouldn’t let me have, in love with Starship Troopers and Hammer's Slammers, in love with brotherhood and sacrifice and most of all in love with the unutterable coolness of kicking ass. And then along comes Lucius Shepard, with this story that's like the Deer Hunter to those other stories' Hogan's Heroes, and rips the lid off of all that, shines a light down into it like the harsh illumination of a parachute flare, revealing a landscape of beauty and terror and sex and drugs and madness and humor and despair.
I won't say I got it. How the hell could I? I was thirteen. But it stayed with me for years. Some of the first pieces I wrote (let's hope no copies of the manuscripts survive) were, I only realized later, fumbling Shepard pastiches: stories about high-tech soldiers in love with their gear, coming to a bad end at the hand of forces they couldn't understand. At the time I had no idea what I was doing, but what I was doing was trying to come to terms with "R&R" and the sharp break it made in the way I understood the world.
Which brings us to August, 2003, and "A Walk in the Garden."
"Maybe you can reach Paradise from here, but I figure we might hafta pass through somewhere bad to get there. And even if we find it, what the fuck we supposed to do then? We're infidels, man. We're unbelievers."
"You may be taking this all too literally."
"Taking it metaphorically just makes you confused."
Maybe that's what "A Walk in the Garden" is really about: finding the truth by literalizing the metaphor of literalizing the metaphor.
The story's been called half-baked and it's been called dated. I prefer to think of it as a raw and angry and courageous expression of its time: six months and two hundred American casualties into a war built on ignorance and lies. In a broader sense it's the time we're still living in, a time when the world's Thomas "Lexus and the Olive Tree" Friedmans and Samuel "Clash of Civilizations" Huntingtons (not to mention its Ahmadinejads and bin Ladens) can blithely explain away the world's problems in terms of a monolithic West and monolithic Islam. "A Walk in the Garden" both encapsulates that world-view and skewers it, savagely.
And it doesn't hurt that it's a fuckin' riot to read. From the opening scene with Charlie and his helmet to the list of "10 Things Specialist Charles N. Wilson Wants You To Know" that ends the story, "A Walk in the Garden" is laced with black humor and dark insight. In many ways "A Walk in the Garden" is the story I was trying to write all through the late Eighties, but immeasurably better, and not only because it's written by an immeasurably better writer than Teenage Me could possibly have been. It's better because it's true, true in the sense that "R&R" was true, true in the sense that all the best fiction is true.
I hope that somewhere out there is a kid for whom "A Walk in the Garden" has done what "R&R" did for me, back when; some Fox News-watching kid who's had his eyes opened or some passionate Cassandra who's had her faith in the future restored.
Like the anonymous Marine put it in another mind-blowing war story, Dispatches: "Don't worry, baby, God'll think of something."
Till then all we can do is keep moving, like Charlie Wilson: keep crawling through shadow, looking for shade.
Link to story.