There’s a joke I know, but it isn’t very funny. There’s no punchline and the setup takes at least 15 minutes to tell. By the time the “joke” is over, most people are angry that they’ve waited around for no evident payoff. But it’s one of my favorite party tricks because it’s a meta-joke; a joke on the construct of a joke. Because jokes are a crude form of humor and an even cruder form of conversation. Their existence is relegated to the lowest common denominator of communication (envision the eye rolls, the hesitation, when someone asks if we want to hear a joke), yet, they are still employed as the focal objects of humor. Jokes are the type of humor that’s supposed to be brief, exacting, and humanistic.
How, then, are we supposed to act when our jokes aren’t funny anymore? It’s a gut-punch, really. An embarrassing, unbearable moment when we realize we’ve landed flat and that our attempt at camaraderie and goodwill has violently turned on us and made us look foolish. And how foolish we must all seem to everyone around us. Especially to the Gods of humor.
John Warner isn’t one of the Gods of humor but, it turns out, he has worked for them. The author of 2011’s severely underrated, The Funny Man, and editor of The Best of McSweeneys Internet Tendency, Warner knows his way around a joke or two. But if Tough Day for the Army is a barometer of the kind of humor he trades in, then we might be waiting for some time for the punchline to land. And even then, there may not even be a punchline; there may only be an uncomfortable silence replaced with an even more uncomfortable laughter.
Above all else, and despite the terrible acts that his characters are prone to, the short stories collected in Tough Day for the Army are achingly human. Most of the conflicts are internal and indistinct. A would-be Mormon meets his match while vying for the attention of another would-be Mormon; a neighborhood war escalates into unsustainability and questionable morals; an incident at a beef slaughter plant calls a man’s very humanity into question. And all of these stories are in the service of pondering (though never answering) deep, Camus-type queries: what does it mean to be human and to be faced with the paradox of existence? A universe that has no regard for humanity pushes the burden back on us, and thus we turn inward to ourselves.
And, oh God, how we must hate what we see there, if what we see is what Warner reflects.
I’m guessing that Warner has discovered the concerned truth about much of our humanity; that we are all hideous and ugly on the inside and project it outward onto others. That much feels apparent from his choice of epigraphs: a quote from the brilliant James Baldwin (“I really do believe we can be better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous—and people are not yet willing to pay it”) followed by this observation from an un-Googleable Mark Brookstein: “I’m not proud but I’m not an animal either.” We may not be animals, but animals, it seems, we aren’t far off.
Animals are a sticking point for much of Warner’s protagonists. More often than not, animals have a version of Truth that the protagonists seek. The adoptive parent of a new dog looks for answers from his canine companion in “My Dog and Me”, and finds them only after foregoing expectations. In one of the more subversive stories in the books, “Monkey and Man”, a talking monkey illustrates the missing element of humanity in ourselves. The humans who simply exist within Warner’s stories—the line workers in the beef slaughter plant, the unquestioning farmers in “Poet Farmers”, the homosexuals who goad Norman into his decisions in “Homosexuals Threaten the Sanctity of Norman’s Marriage”—all act as the external forces that influence our decisions and make us question our own happiness. Warner’s characters could be happy, though it often takes some large obtrusion or some grand intervention to force them to reconcile with their own misery.
The journey to reach that point is where the absurdity of our struggles appears so goddamn fruitless and laugh-out-loud silly. A group of fraternity brothers (not “frat” brothers, mind you) opt to waterboard one of their housemates because… well, “…waterboarding sells itself. Everyone will know that we are the fraternity so badass that people are willing to be waterboarded to belong.” And what else, Warner implicitly asks, are we willing to do to “belong”? Work meaningless jobs between searching for a true human connection? We could all do worse. We could be the atypical subjects of Warner’s scathing eye.
The Army itself is personified in the titular story, “Tough Day for the Army”. Schmitty, the toughest of all the fraternity brothers, isn’t so much an individual (though we’ve all met Schmitty once or twice in our lives) as he is a hulking, stalking nightmare of our embedded fears. It’s not much of a stretch to grasp onto the wry political and social commentary that Warner tackles. What is humor good for if not to cast light upon our social and political misgivings.
Mark Twain and George Saunders have taught us that through their subversive prose and storytelling. Warner trades in the same terrain as these great men, too. His bag of storytelling tricks goes a bit deeper, however, to subvert the form and structure of modern humor. Much of Tough Day for the Army is packed with short, unusual forms of storytelling. Whether it’s the recollection of Jesus’ time on the ice as a hockey player in “Second Careers”, or the confessions of a newspaper editor in “Corrections and Clarifications”, Warner isn’t bound by the traditional template for short stories. Some can seem a bit gimmicky at times (“Poet Farmers” feels forced in its subject and delivery), but as a whole, Tough Day for the Army is a middle finger to the strictures of form.
The collection ends (how else?) with “A Love Story”, a type of meta-narrative that displays Warner’s deft hand with the confines of a traditional love story. Unrequited love is one more element of our long-suffering human condition, the one piece to the puzzle that continues to confound and enrapture us as readers and seekers. We may be no closer to reconciling our happiness with an inattentive universe by the end of Tough Day for the Army, but we can share our misery together, and have a good laugh at our expense. Because we are the most foolish of all the creatures God his created. But at least he created us in his own image. And there’s humor in that, too.
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