(author photo: Michael Priest)
Hunter’s Moon, author
Philip Caputo’s New
‘Novel in Stories,’
Military vets, husbands, fathers
and sons bond, hunt with loyal dogs,
reject ‘comforting illusions’
Aug. 6, 2019
NO AMERICAN AUTHOR TODAY creates more richly imagined stories and characters than Philip Caputo does. He has become that rarest of writers: a literary novelist—that is, one who uncovers insights into the human condition and writes in graceful prose—who also keeps readers turning pages with compelling, often thrilling, stories.
His new novel Hunter’s Moon, published today (Henry Holt and Company, $28), is his 17th book. Set mostly in Michigan’s wild Upper Peninsula, it comprises seven stories with recurring, overlapping characters: military veterans, fathers, sons, husbands, friends, guys in their 50s and 60s and their loved ones, haunted by memories of war and its after-effects.
In early July, author Gregory W. Beaubien spoke with Caputo at length about Hunter’s Moon. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:
Beaubien: Your new novel Hunter’s Moon is about veterans of war and their families, who now appear to be at war with the world or with themselves. Is that how you see it?
Caputo: I don’t know about them being at war with themselves. Some of them are and some of them aren’t. My main purpose in writing this book was to write about male or masculine relationships. Father to son, a husband to a wife, old friends. And in the last story, the relationship between two generations of military veterans.
But the inspiration for the book was twofold: One was the 19th century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and his series of stories called A Sportsman’s Sketches. It was published in the 1850s or 1860s. I have a translated copy that I bought in Moscow ages ago. What Turgenev tried to do was, against the background of these hunting forays that he himself undertakes—mostly, just like mine, bird hunting—he presented a portrait of Russian society, especially Russian rural society, as it was at that time. In Hunter’s Moon I was trying to portray American male relationships within the context of these hunting forays.
My other inspiration was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—a series of stories that present a picture of small-town life in America in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of interconnected characters. The characters keep showing up, particularly one character named George Willard. That’s what I was after, too.
Beaubien: In your new book’s first story, “Blockers,” the main character Bill Erickson is “insufferably good-looking,” as you describe him, a hero pilot during Desert Storm who has become an alcoholic, taken over his father’s business and watched it fail, and eventually kills himself, widowing his wife, Lisa. Bill’s pals had always looked out for him. Does hunting with his friends in the woods allow Bill to feel that he’s dying a noble, soldier’s death, even as he kills himself?
Caputo: No, that isn’t what he’s up to. One of Bill’s character flaws is that he’s self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic even—which exists paradoxically with his depressive trait. What’s he done—and it’s left somewhat ambiguous—is to use his friends to make it appear that he has not committed suicide, that he has died in a hunting accident. His motives are much more practical and less romantic than the idea of dying a noble death in the forest while hunting with one’s friends.
Beaubien: This was one of my favorite stories in Hunter’s Moon. Hal, the grumpy old dad, misses his departed wife and is hostile toward his TV-writer son. Hal had been a soldier in France during World War II and later became a semi-itinerant machinist who suffers war nightmares. It was “natural for Hal to be angry with God,” you wrote. His best friend had died in his arms in the war. Hal kicked himself for not taking advantage of the opportunity to attend college on the GI Bill. He envied and resented the “college boys in the front office.”
The recurring character of Will Treadwell, an ex-Marine and a big bear of a man who’s facing his own demons, takes Hal, his son and a couple of his son’s friends hunting. Father and son fight, rip open old wounds, reveal a shameful secret, and then finally begin to reconcile while hunting as Hal lays dying, or close to it. Again, here’s the theme of men with guns, hunting in the woods, as a means of catharsis and closure. For Hal, does the story’s denouement bring his war wounds and demons full circle, thus exorcising them?
Caputo: If that is the case, it was very subconscious on Hal’s part. I’d rather think that his agreeing to go on this particular hunting expedition with his son—just like his son agreed to go with him—was something that came about due to family pressure from the other siblings who’d been looking after Hal and were sick of him and sick of taking care of him. “Why don’t you go hunting with our oldest brother for a change?”
‘The experience of the Vietnam War was so searing that I’m unable to let go of it completely, because it doesn’t let go of me. Almost everything I write or think about somehow refers back to that event and its after-effects.’
—author Philip Caputo
But in the course of this hunting expedition, a movement toward catharsis and reconciliation begins—without either Hal or his son wanting it or intending it. It simply happens. And in the end, we’re not entirely sure it really has happened. I think I used the line, “It wasn’t the end of the war between the two of them; it was an armistice between two combatants who temporarily run out of ammunition.” But the impression is that they are moving toward reconciliation. The son is going to do whatever it takes to save his father’s life.
Beaubien: In this story, Lonnie Kidman, the “village asshole”—who for me is reminiscent of the character Lester Ballard in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Child of God—had wanted to kill Arabs in Iraq or Afghanistan but wound up staying on a military base in Georgia instead. Denied the experience of real war, he starts one with the world, and then with Will. For a long time after Vietnam, Will had thought that he wasn’t entitled to happiness. “His devils hadn’t been exorcised as much as tamed,” you wrote.
Vietnam is never far away in your stories. By writing about war and its aftermath on people, are you trying to exorcise your own demons of the war?
Caputo: No, and I say that quite candidly. I’ve been asked many times if I had written [his first book, the best-selling memoir] A Rumor of War as a catharsis, and the answer was “no” then.
The experience of the Vietnam War was so searing for me at a young age that I’m unable to let go of it completely, because it doesn’t let go of me. Almost everything I write or think about somehow refers back to that event and its after-effects. I’ve often compared it to being born. It was as though whoever I was—I was 22, I think, when I went there—whoever I was in those 22 years before that had died, disappeared. And somebody else took his place. And that’s the me that now exists. It was as if I had died and been reborn as someone else. And so I constantly refer back to [the Vietnam War], and not even consciously.
Beaubien: Will’s wife Madeline “wished he wouldn’t look at life through the distorting lens of the war,” you wrote. As an author and a former Marine yourself, do you find yourself looking at life through the distorting lens of the war?
Caputo: I did, but not in the last, say, 15–20 years. Not as much as I did before.
Beaubien: Every writer needs material to write about. Hemingway went big-game hunting in Africa and deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and then wrote about those exploits. Do you ever look at Vietnam that way, as a rich vein of material for you as a writer?
Caputo: No. I’ve looked at it, oddly enough, the opposite way. I think of the experience as rather self-limiting. There’s just so much you can say about it. And yet it always keeps cropping up, somehow. Even in stories that are not directly related to Vietnam, but are only indirectly derivative of that experience, I end up finding something different to say about it.
As a source of material, war is usually good for only one book, maybe two. But the Vietnam War was a lot more than just a war. It was the epicenter of a period of great social and cultural upheaval in America that, whether one went there or not, transformed the whole baby boom generation in the way they look at the world. So I think that may account for the Vietnam War’s resilience, and for the fact that even now, half a century and more since we became directly involved with it, the echoes of that war are still heard.
Beaubien: In the story, you cite a poem that calls soldiers “dreamers.” Can you explain further the idea of soldiers as “dreamers”?
Caputo: That poem—which Siegfried Sassoon wrote about World War I— always struck me. Combat soldiers in a war dream, just as it says in the poem, of returning to the lives they had once led, returning to their peaceful villages or towns, their wives, their girlfriends. That becomes a kind of grail for them. And I think I mentioned in the story, it was Will’s experience, this dream that becomes seemingly unobtainable. But nevertheless soldiers keep dreaming about it.
But at the same time, Sassoon also uses that phrase “Soldiers must win a fiery climax with their lives.” There is this dream, or impulse or desire, for some kind of cathartic, purgative battle experience. Instead of dreaming any longer about the past and desiring—like Tim O’Brien’s character in The Things They Carried [a collection of linked short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War]—you throw yourself entirely into this dreadful experience. You, in effect, become the war. And I think that’s what Sassoon was getting at in that poem, and what I’m getting at in this story.
‘The Nature of Love on the Last Frontier’
Beaubien: Like “Grief,” this is another father-son story, another fraught relationship. There’s no direct war connection this time, but the father is so angry with his son for dealing drugs that he has thought of killing him. Instead he winds up fighting to save his son’s life from drowning or freezing to death after the young man falls into an ice-cold river in Alaska, where they’re on a hunting trip and far out of contact with civilization.
In one of the story’s most gripping scenes, we witness the savagery of wolves killing a caribou bull and eating its guts alive. Did you intend the wolves fighting nature to provide for their young to be a metaphor for the father protecting his son from the dangerous indifference of nature?
Caputo: Yes. That’s why I call it “The Nature of Love on the Last Frontier.” Early on in the story, when the father and son are fishing in the river, there’s a description of a mother grizzly with her cubs—and the father’s fear that in her ferocious desire to protect her cubs, she might attack them. And there’s the image of the birds that dive-bomb these two characters. The birds are protecting their nests and their young. The male bull caribou seemingly sacrifices his life to protect the cow and the calf, while the wolves are helping to sustain their brood of four wolf cubs by killing the caribou. These are all examples of love in nature. Despite his antipathy for what his son has done, underneath it all the character Paul loves him very much and goes to great lengths to save his life, to save him from dying of hypothermia.
Beaubien: When you’re writing your books, and when you were writing this one, do you consciously set out to craft these metaphors, or do they just happen, and then you realize it afterwards?
Caputo: With this particular story, the metaphors were done with forethought. I had remembered from trips I’d taken to Alaska these images of what creatures there do to protect their young. I watched a female grizzly just about killing herself trying to dig up a little squirrel for her cubs. And I was dive-bombed by birds, just like I described in the story. I’d been thinking about that in the back of my mind for 20 years and used it consciously and deliberately as a metaphoric image for this story.
Beaubien: Will is angry that a friend has told strangers the story of him and Lonnie Kidman. He also regrets his own cruelty toward a character named Skryd, who had been in the Air Force and now lives as a backwoods recluse. Will wants to apologize to Skryd and goes out and gets lost in the woods, where he confronts the possibility of his own death. As a former Marine, he believes that to confide his troubles to others is a sign of weakness. So at age 64, he faces them alone (or just with his trusty dog), lost in the woods. The part where he doesn’t want to follow the meandering stream recalls a similar scene in your excellent story “In the Forest of the Laughing Elephant” from your book of novellas, Exiles, which is one of my favorites of yours. To reference another of your book titles, The Longest Road, so to speak, eventually takes you where you want to go, rather than the shortest.
In the story “Lost,” the bear becomes a metaphor for Lonnie Kidman, a metaphor for death, and for the demons within himself that Will must conquer. Will was lost in more ways than one, but did the experience with the bear, and with his finally finding his way out of the woods, bring Will back to himself?
Caputo: Yeah, that’s what I intended in this story. Will has, for the time-being anyway, lost himself. He recovers himself by getting lost. In the mythology of the Ojibwa Indians, the bear is a powerful being that heals illnesses—not the menacing predator that white people tend to think of. That’s why Will recalls his mother-in-law’s mythology about the bear being this creature of healing and power. Whereas the night before, the wolves he heard were a terrifying menace of the wilderness—both the real wilderness and the wilderness inside himself. But by daylight, when he encounters the bear, Will discovers the healing powers of the natural world. And in the act of becoming actually lost, he metaphorically re-finds and rediscovers himself. That’s why at the end, when he laughs, his wife Madeline says, “There’s something I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
Beaubien: I’m impressed by your ability to create these metaphors. Do you spend a lot of time thinking them out ahead of time, or in some cases do they just emerge organically as you write?
Caputo: It’s both. As I mentioned before, in the story “The Nature of Love on the Last Frontier,” it was quite thought-out, planned and conscious. In this case, with the story “Lost,” creating the metaphors was more of a spontaneous phenomenon. I had actually encountered a bear in that very way that I described in the story. Probably that incident was in the back of my mind. As I was moving Will through the woods it suddenly sprang into my conscious mind.
Beaubien: Did the bear really smell like greasy bacon fat?
Caputo: Ha! It did! It really stunk.
Beaubien: I wonder if that’s its natural stink, or was it something the bear had eaten?
Caputo: Probably something it had eaten. I know they are pretty strong-smelling creatures, but not quite that bad.
Beaubien: In a fictitious small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Bill’s widow Lisa buys a bed-and-breakfast property with insurance money she should not have received, because he had committed suicide. Lisa, who grew up poor, meets a married man, Gaetan, a guest at her B&B, and has an affair with him. Gaetan is from an upper-class background, but he had been a war correspondent for NBC Radio and witnessed the Rwandan genocide with the Hutus and the Tutsi in 1994. He recalls the smell of hundreds of hacked corpses rotting in a landfill. He couldn’t get the stench out of his clothes and had to burn them.
Now, after visiting upscale Traverse City, Mich., together, Lisa and Gaetan drive through other parts of the state and see the effects of globalization in desolate, formerly prosperous factory towns. They encounter a bitter, down-and-out father, Ken Parichy.
What does the relationship between Lisa and Gaetan signify? Through their once-a-year trysts, are they each trying to exorcise their own lingering wounds of war and its wide-ranging repercussions?
Caputo: With Lisa, there are two reasons why I changed from a male point of view to a female. I was originally going to write this story from Gaetan’s point of view, but I felt there were too many guys in the book, so I wanted to write about a gal. And I was interested in two things: One was the phenomenon of female lust, which she does experience. But it’s not pure, raw, physical lust. It includes an emotional lust to exorcise the ghost of her dead husband. To be a bit brutal about it, she uses Gaetan as an instrument of this exorcism.
As for him, he’s in a marriage that’s gone stale and sterile. I don’t think he’s seeking any kind of redemption through Lisa. With him it starts off as male lust, but then it evolves into a genuine emotional attachment. He falls in love with her. But she doesn’t fall in love with him.
Another theme that’s concerned me for quite some time, and I’ve had it in some other stories, are the class differences in America. They come into play here as a source of tension between them. It’s a tension that creates an attraction and a repulsion almost simultaneously, the class differences. You can see that especially in Lisa. She’s drawn to this guy, but at the same time there’s this underlying, seething resentment of what he represents, what he comes from. But that, paradoxically, exists with her own, unsentimental view of the class of people—you might call them “poor white”—that she originally came from. That’s why she understands what Parichy is doing in the hospital waiting room. She gets that he’s trying to scam Gaetan—who for all of his experience, because of where he comes from and what he comes from, is something of a naïve.
Beaubien: That was an interesting dynamic. She might have antipathy toward Gaetan’s privilege, but at the same time, she feels a certain ill will toward her own socioeconomic background, as embodied by the Ken Parichy character.
‘Lines of Departure’
Beaubien: In this final story of Hunter’s Moon, the character of Phil C. is almost you, but not quite. Will talks Phil into attending a flaky, New Age retreat that promises to heal the psychic wounds of war vets. Phil knows it’s bullshit, a hustle. He brings up his own war memories of firing a rifle and seeing an enemy soldier fall, not sure if it was his shot or someone else’s that hit the man.
But this story is really about the Iraq War vet Devin, and the poor Iraqi kid who got tangled in chains and dragged behind his wrecker truck. As you wrote, vets are locked in “the prison of their memories, solitary confinement where no light shines,” which seems to be analogous to the kid getting wrapped up in those chains. A line that stood out for me was, “War lacerates the soul,” much like those chains lacerated the boy and turned him into “strawberry jam.” For soldiers in Vietnam, you wrote, “wisdom meant rejecting all comforting illusions.” Is this the point of the book’s final story, and perhaps the point of the entire book itself, this idea of rejecting comforting illusions?
Caputo: Any reader, including yourself, is free to read into these stories what you see in them. Because, quite often—and I’m sure as a writer yourself, you know—that there are scenes and metaphors that creep into your writing without any conscious awareness on your part. For example, you just mentioned the chains lacerating the body of the Iraqi boy being analogous to the laceration of souls that war inflicts. It’s not anything that I thought of, but now that you mention it, I think it’s a quite valid way to look at it. About your statement that “rejecting comforting illusions” is the point of the story and the point of the book, I would say that if the book has a single point, that would be it.
Beaubien: Is male friendship a comforting illusion?
Caputo: No, it’s not. When camaraderie exists, it’s probably the only salvation that a lot of these guys have. That’s one of the things I have learned from the Vietnam War. All of that bloodshed and sacrifice were pointless. But in the end, what saved us—not as a nation, but those of us who fought there—was the camaraderie and the brotherhood that we experienced.
Race and racism have once again surfaced in the national conversation. In Vietnam, you really didn’t notice that so-and-so was a black guy, or so-and-so was a Native American. I had three Native Americans and five or six black guys in my platoon. Maybe when we were back on Okinawa or in garrison, then yes, race would appear, and sometimes in a virulent form. But once you were under the stress of combat, with all of you depending upon one another, then the brotherhood not only eradicated racism, but it also eradicated class differences between people.
Beaubien: We’re at a time in this country now when people’s differences are being emphasized. Everybody’s being splintered into feuding tribes and factions. But as a nation we don’t create unity by emphasizing differences; we create unity by emphasizing what we all have in common. And so when you’re in the war, you’re all on the same side, working together, fighting together. In that situation, your differences melt away, and it’s what you have in common that matters.
Caputo: Yeah. When was it, 125 years ago at least, that the great American psychologist William James said what we need is the moral equivalent of war? It seems a shame that that sense of unity and brotherhood had to be created in an event as awful as war, particularly the Vietnam War.
But all these different forms that are called “identity politics” disturb me a great deal. The identity politics of the Left constantly emphasize who’s transgender, who’s homosexual, who is black, who is Hispanic, who is this, who is that—which in turn has created in the last 10 years a kind of white identity politics. We’re all concerned with the Pluribus part of our national motto, and not the Unum part.
‘Identity politics disturb me a great deal. We’re all concerned with the Pluribus part of our national motto, not the Unum.’
And this is just an aside, an extra-literary comment, but I’ve often felt that if we brought back the idea of a national service, it would go a long way toward not only erasing the awareness of our differences, but toward overcoming class differences. It could be a draft that would include both men and women, for example, and not necessarily a military draft. But let’s say, if you don’t go to college, then from the age of 18 to 20—and if you do go to college, then from the age of 22 to 24—for those two years you would be required to do some form of national service. You could choose the military, or you could choose the Peace Corps, or maybe a revival of the old Civilian Conservation Corps, in which you would work at improving our national parks and national monuments.
What I’ve noticed, especially living here in the East, and I’ll bet you notice it there in Chicago as well, is a kind of arrogance among people who belong to the so-called “one percent” (it’s really not one percent, but more like 10 percent). They don’t feel that they owe their country or their society or their culture anything. They’re just going to go to prep school and then to Yale or whatever Ivy League university, and then get a job with some big investment bank and build their McMansion.
I found that back in my day, when we were all facing the draft, very often a college graduate or a kid who’d had at least some college would find himself with some guy from the backwoods of Tennessee or the farms in Iowa who maybe had finished two years of high school. But they suddenly had to work together and they learned things from each other. I think that would go a long way toward reunifying this country. But unfortunately, I don’t see it happening, because it seems that these days, politicians are all just emphasizing what can be done for you, as opposed to what Kennedy said, about what you can do for others and for your country.
Beaubien: Right. And I think it’s weakening the country. But some people don’t want unity. They want a fractured America. They want tribes, because they see political advantage in division.
Speaking of the national conversation, we’re at a time in our culture when men are being demonized, when masculinity is deemed “toxic.” So it’s interesting that you’ve chosen to write about masculinity and male friendships in Hunter’s Moon. Was that timing intentional for you?
Caputo: No, it wasn’t. Masculinity and male friendships are segments of society that I’m familiar with. I’m a white, heterosexual male who’s spent a lot of time in small towns and in rural America. You try to write what you know.
It was only after I had finished the book, and I was speaking to the head of publicity at my publisher, Holt, and with my editor there—who by the way, are both women—that they pointed out to me that Hunter’s Moon is a portrayal of modern American manhood. And I hope it’s a rather sensitive one. None of these guys in the book could be called typical macho men. They’re full of self-doubts, foibles and frailties. And they struggle with their emotions, with expressing and controlling their emotions. I hope that the book comes off as a portrayal of modern American masculinity. But I wasn’t intending to do that; it just came out that way. I said, “Oh, Christ, not only have we got short stories, but they’re about white, heterosexual, mostly rural males. It will probably sell ten copies.”
But again, spinning away from the book, in an extra-literary commentary, what I’ve observed when it comes to the identity politics of the Left is that 20 years ago, let’s say, the idea was to redress wrongs that had been done, and continue to be done, to racial minorities and to some extent to the female part of our society. But over the years, it’s devolved into this politics of not only identity but of victimization. In order to have a victim, you have to have a perpetrator. And the perpetrator has become this abstraction—this white, heterosexual male. You see it over and over and over again in the newspapers, or you hear it on the radio-news programs, or on TV. They’re always talking about the “white guys.” If I were to speak about black guys or Hispanic guys in that way, I would be condemned for making unjustifiable generalizations.
Beaubien: Right. People, young people in particular, are being indoctrinated—especially in the universities but also in the workplace and in the popular culture at large—to believe that they are oppressed and should constantly be on the lookout for oppressors they can blame and punish. In fact, many of these kids are very privileged themselves.
But as far as Hunter’s Moon goes, perhaps it’s a happy coincidence that you’ve written about male friendships and masculinity at such a fraught time for the American male. Maybe it will be a marketing advantage. This is definitely a man’s book. I imagine its readers will be men. And maybe some guys who haven’t bought a novel for a while will finally do so with this one.
In the bigger picture, what does Hunter’s Moon mean to the overall arc of your career as an author?
Caputo: I think the book represents some development on my part. Except for Exiles, I’ve mostly written really long fiction. This is shorter fiction, which I’ve always wanted to do. But I’ve found that it’s really, really hard. You’ve got to confine yourself and make every word count. I don’t know that I did that in all of these stories; there’s probably some flab in them.
You mentioned that you liked Exiles, and I like that book for the same reason. While those were novellas rather than short stories, nevertheless they did require a certain degree of compression. And I really love those three stories in Exiles. Unfortunately, short fiction just doesn’t sell very much. To date, Exiles has sold about 10,000 copies [since the book was first published 22 years ago in 1997], which is quite modest. But nevertheless, I’m really pleased that I wrote it.
Exiles, Philip Caputo's 1997 book of three novellas
set in Connecticut, Australia and Vietnam, is one of
his personal favorites, he says.
Beaubien: I can imagine that you would be. I think you do well with shorter forms. That compression, even if it’s difficult to achieve, creates an end result that is satisfying for the reader. The stories are focused, and that compression is like water being forced through a narrow space—it propels the narrative forward. In some cases with novels in general, the requirement to fill up 70,000 or 100,000 or more words brings in subplots that can feel like detours from the main story. So a novella like “In the Forest of the Laughing Elephant” which is one of my favorites from Exiles, and “Paradise” too, they’re very focused, they’re compressed. For me, that made them very enjoyable to read and very satisfying.
And the fact that you can say Hunter’s Moon is a novel—and not a collection of short stories—probably helps its marketability. Novels are more sellable than short-story collections.
Caputo: To tell you the truth, I had never thought of it that way. I thought of it as interconnected stories. But it was my publishers who said, “This is really a novel in stories.” And I could tell that they were thinking, “How do we sell this?” Because short stories are so hard to sell. And so I went along with that.
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Gregory W. Beaubien’s first novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Shadows the Sizes of Cities.