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A Short Novel of Love, War and Comrades in Arms Contains the World in a Foxhole

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In addition to waiting, there is counting: Eden wishes to be counted among the death tolls tallied by both the narrator and Mary, who wonders where on the roster Eden’s name will land: “Slowly she changed her mind about what his number might be. But she always knew he’d have a number. … For in the end it would always be the war that killed him.”

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Early on we are told that Eden, the bedridden, formerly strapping 220-pound combat Marine, now weighs 70 pounds. Ackerman wisely avoids the laundry list of injuries he suffered. We can guess; Eden is housed in a burn center in San Antonio, his physical totality a fraction of what it was: “He’s had a lot of infections, and they’ve cut all of him off up to the torso. … I don’t think anyone really knows what to call him, except for Mary. She calls him her husband.”

Mary is a good wife, a loving wife. She’s not running the base wives’ club, but she understands Eden’s need to serve his country. She also wants a baby. The couple made an agreement that if she got pregnant, he wouldn’t go back to war. But intimacy is difficult while Eden fights his ghosts from an earlier deployment. Or is he just holding out so he can redeploy? Still, a child is conceived, and her hair is red like flames. The birth allows Ackerman to explore conflicted, confused true love in such elegant and humane ways that you will come to question everything you think you know about the meanings of romance and fidelity.

Whatever present action exists in the novel happens over a single Christmas holiday, when Mary, after three years, finally leaves Eden’s bedside to visit their daughter, who now lives with Mary’s mother.

Some critics might call “Waiting for Eden” a retelling of Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar classic “Johnny Got His Gun.” That would be unfair to both writers for a multitude of reasons, Ackerman’s apolitical stance first among them. But the younger author does make at least one wry, essential and tragicomic homage to the ringing telephone that begins “Johnny”: When Mary travels to see their daughter, she accidentally leaves her cellphone charging in Eden’s room, just behind his head. The ringing phone as Mary tries to locate it from her mother’s house will rip Eden from the far depths of consciousness into a paranoid phantasmagoria of cockroaches.

Eden has always hated bugs, and they are at the center of one of the book’s key betrayals. From his hospital bed he clocks a cockroach stalking him from across the room: “Eden didn’t know the name for a cockroach anymore, but he knew that its hard-backed shell and thorny legs could run a number on him.” Is that Kafka’s Gregor Samsa haunting this novel? Maybe.

The ringing behind Eden’s head convinces him that an army of cockroaches is invading his room to annihilate what remains of his body. In an infinite and inhumane technology loop, his panic causes the shift nurse to treat his extreme response as cardiac arrest, which in turn causes her to call Mary’s cellphone to tell her Eden is going into cardiac arrest, which causes even more ringing and more physiological anguish for Eden. It’s almost a gag out of “I Love Lucy.” Except it’s not. Even though you shouldn’t, you will laugh.


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