Review: Story of the Sand, by Mark B. Pickering

I have read, if my calculations are correct, 36.4% of this book — and that’s really enough for me.

Here’s the back cover:

After spending months fighting in the sands of Iraq, Sampson Roy has returned to his home in Georgia a changed man. Gone is the patriotic optimist who went off to serve his country, and in his stead is a bitter, resentful pessimist.

Sampson is unable to cope with society, and the government could care less about his problems. His psychological damage from what he witnessed in the Middle East has ruined his marriage and left him a pariah to those he formerly loved. He retreats to the woods, drowning his demons in a bottle of liquor. But in the midst of his suffering, a ghost appears named David Tree, a dead soldier from the Iraqi conflict who has been unable to pass to the other side. David brings unexpected news: Sampson’s wife is pregnant.

With a new burst of hope, Sampson cautiously leaves the woods. But his alcoholism and self-destructive nature brand him an outcast, and his wife refuses to reconcile. Deep in his heart, Sampson wants to raise his newborn child and return to the life he once had. Finding the courage to conquer his addiction may be too much, yet he has to try — even if it ultimately destroys him. Haunting and powerful, Story of the Sand is a searing portrait of war’s destruction of the individual soldier.

Okay, so what we have here is military ghost fiction. And even the spectral aspect isn’t that interesting — the ghost shows up and what does Sampson do? He initiates an inane argument over whether or not he’s allowed to call the ghost by a nickname. This goes on for ages.

The story itself flits around from present to past to dream sequence at an alarming rate, and the result is confusing; there are still several passages about which I’m unsure. The writing itself, too, often descends into incoherency. Take the following example, from page 27:

Sandals ran before him before he completely blacked out. Sampson wanted to grab an ankle. He wanted it to feel his pain. bloody tendons were in his grip, in his mind, screaming. The b****** who did this a crippled f*** burst satisfaction inside his fading head.

Can anyone parse that last sentence? It might just be me, but I’ve read it a half-dozen times and still have no idea what the author was trying to say.

Other passages are equally problematic. Take the following sentences:

His ankle twisted badly, painfully. It looked like putty and dangled as he tried to walk.

It must be painful if you’re ever in a position where your ankle dangles. Also painful: this prose. It’s very disjointed, the dialogue is boring, and many of the metaphors make no sense. I kept waiting for the story to grab me and take me past the clunky writing, but after nearly eighty pages I figured that if it hadn’t already, it probably never would.

The story of soldiers returning home from the war in Iraq is an important one and needs to be told. Just not this way.