Alpha Mike Foxtrot

AlphaJohn Sheppard (MFA, 1994)

Alpha Mike Foxtrot is the raw chronicle of a soldier who walked away from his life, his schizophrenic brother, his runaway father and cancer-ridden mother, the punk rocker who finds him on the road, and the forgotten souls hidden away in a boarding house in the Midwest. Each chapter tells a story of hitting bottom and redemption, of becoming lost and being found again, of fighting the darkness within and without, all with pitch black humor.

Sheppard frequently writes about his time in the Army, although it's more of a Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried approach than a Full Metal Jacket sort of war glory trip. This is the story of a guy named Joe, a soldier, but it starts after Iraq, after he got wounded and discharged, and has more to do with starting over, finding your duty in life after your duty in the armed forces has abruptly ended. He's got a mom with cancer and a brother that's schizophrenic, and instead of immersing himself in that drama, he thumbs his way to the midwest, finds a room in an eclectic boarding house filled with lost souls, and stumbles into the only career for which his service trained him: stocking crates of junk merchandise at the local big-box store.

The book is a great black-humored capture of the culture of the mid-00s, a midwest full of oversized SUVs with yellow ribbon magnets on the back, with owners racking up credit card debt to keep the biggest TVs in every room of their house. It's a great story set in that world, about becoming lost and then found, and very awesome writing.