‘These Heroic, Happy Dead’ by Luke Mogelson: An honest book review

Luke Mogelson was never a combat soldier, but you would never know that by reading his debut collection of short stories, These Heroic, Happy Dead. That’s probably because he spent ample time around active military members and veterans while serving in the U.S. National Guard and traveling abroad as a war correspondent for The New Yorker.

From the first two pages it was unmistakable what type of book this would be — as that is where the high praise appeared from two of my favorite authors, Ron Rash and Philipp Meyer. They called the book “extraordinary” and “stunning” and my expectations were set.

The various stories, all surrounding soldiers or veterans and mostly set in everyday life after war, tell captivating tales that seem to take the ordinary and make it feel oddly important. Many of the stories are also woven together, as characters we meet in the first few appear again later in the book.

There’s violence, and heartbreak, and depression, and love, and honor. In short, there’s a little bit of everything. Am I going to sit here and tell you that they are uplifting, that I put the book down and smiled at the triumphant resolutions in each passage? Of course not. They were honest and raw, and with that type of writing comes sadness — but also depth and empathy.

I’m not a veteran, and in truth I’ve never sat down and chatted about military experience with any veterans outside of the World War II generation, but reading these stories feels like they’re coming directly from personal understanding.

It’s tough to speak with veterans about their memories of war. It almost feels like a line you’re not to cross as a civilian, asking those questions: What was it like, and how do you readjust to life back home? But Mogelson gives an unflinching view into those worlds.

Since 2011, Mogelson has lived in and reported from Afghanistan, Syria, West Africa and Iraq, so despite not being an active military member, his stories seem to capture the experience with authority.

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This collection reminds me what Hemingway said, that “all good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.” That’s what it’s like reading this short story anthology. Hemingway was a war correspondent also, after all, and some of his most important work centers around his experiences in those combat zones. Mogelson took a page out of the Hemingway playbook with this collection, writing in plain yet powerful language and keeping dialogue sparse and necessary.

These are the types of stories that stay with you long after you’ve read them. After reading “Sea Bass,” for example — the second story — I closed the book and placed it on my chest and thought about what I had just read, what it meant. I came to this conclusion: This is a book that needed to be written, and all significant writing needs to be read.

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