“Waiting for Eden,” the third novel by National Book Award finalist Elliot Ackerman (“Dark at the Crossing”), is a ghost story rooted in the particulars of war. But “ghost story” doesn’t mean a gothic tale. Any haunting here has more to do with its effect on the reader than what its characters experience. What Ackerman gives us is a tight-knit, inward-looking reckoning with the costs of military sacrifice — in emphatic flesh-and-blood terms.
That makes it strikingly different from “Dark at the Crossing,” a masterpiece which read like a twisting thriller as its Iraqi-American protagonist kept trying to cross the border from Turkey into Syria to join rebels fighting the Assad regime, losing his moral bearings along the way.
In “Waiting for Eden,” the outward action is minimal. The book’s omniscient narrator is the spirit of an unnamed American Marine who was on patrol in Iraq with his pal Eden Malcom when he died. “I was sitting next to Eden and luckier than him when our Humvee hit a pressure plate, killing me and everybody else, him barely surviving. Ever since then I’ve been around too, just on that other side, seeing all there is, and waiting.”
Why is Eden unlucky still to be alive?
Because every square inch of him is severely burned. He is permanently confined to his hospital bed, and his pain is unending. As one of his attending nurses puts it: “Even though he powered the relentless pounding of vital signs that surrounded her desk, she didn’t know if you could call what was in that room a person. Not alive, not dead, what it was didn’t have a name.”
A formerly strapping 220-pound corporal, Eden, or “[t]he 70 pounds that’s left of him,’’ has existed in this state in a burn unit in a San Antonio military hospital for three years. “[H]e’s had a lot of infections,” Ackerman’s ghostly narrator informs us, “and they’ve cut all of him off up to the torso.” He can’t move; he can’t speak. Communication with his wife, Mary, and the nursing staff is nearly impossible.
That may sound like an impossibly grim scenario. But as “Eden” reaches back into the past, its story of betrayals and odd bargains made between the three begins to lend it intrigue and suspense. The clues to where it’s going are in its opening lines: “I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know if you will. You’ve got to wonder if in the end you’d make the same choice, circumstances being similar, or even the same, God help you. Back when I first met her and Eden times were better.’’
While we don’t get much sense of the narrator’s own background, the dynamics of Eden’s and Mary’s characters emerge quickly. Before his injuries, we’re told, Eden “treated the whole world . . . like it was a series of cliffs that existed for no other reason than for him to jump off.”
Even before her husband and his friend left for their second tour in Iraq, Mary’s drive toward life took her down paths where conventional morality gave way to more calculated moral maneuvers. (Ackerman covered similar ground in “Dark at the Crossing,” in which a husband and wife’s damaged devotion to each other leads them toward odd accommodations of each other’s needs.)
We do learn that, before his grievous injuries, Eden and Mary had started a family. We also know that, at the burn unit, the forces of loyalty and survival instinct are pulling Mary apart: “Mary would never leave him. Soon Eden became like an appendage to her, one she spoke for. Grafts, hydrogel treatments, cleanings, all decided by her. His body became her own, and she anchored to it. Even as she refused to leave, she wanted him to die. She just had to look at her daughter, Andy, to feel that want. The girl’s first steps were taken down the linoleum hallways of the burn center.”
Ackerman’s spare but vivid prose conveys everything it needs to convey. His description of a drab hospital campus, for instance, takes you right inside Mary’s head: “She walked beneath the lamps and along a cement path that wound through a grass field and to a dormitory, built long and low, like a bedridden skyscraper.” In context, that “bedridden skyscraper” speaks volumes about her view of her husband’s plight.
Ackerman, who graduated from Tufts and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is a former Marine officer who won the Purple Heart after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. His debut novel, “Green on Blue,” was seen through the eyes of two young Afghan brothers. The central characters in “Dark at the Crossing” were Syrian refugees in Turkey and an Iraqi-American experiencing a debilitating sense of cultural dislocation.
As daring as it is, “Waiting for Eden” sticks closer to home with its entirely American cast of characters. But it makes you wonder what challenge Ackerman will take on next.
WAITING FOR EDEN
By Elliot Ackerman
‘She walked beneath the lamps and along a cement path that wound through a grass field and to a dormitory, built long and low, like a bedridden skyscraper.’
Knopf, 173 pp., $22.95Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.