Review: Music for Love or War, by Martyn Burke

9781770864283>>Published: April 2015

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

At the top are those guys who are practically shrink-wrapped in the flag. They get it! And no matter how hard I try to be like them, I never get there. Cast from some alloy of history and patriotism, they know exactly why they’re risking the package. They’re the guys who look you right in the eye as they coat you with a thick layer of geopolitical goo beginning with September 11 and working back to some wormhole in your convictions as they remind you how you’d damn well better atone by charging into the great machine gun of history. These guys never blink. I envy them. I love having them in my platoon. But I sure as hell won’t be hanging out with them telling war stories years from now.

In the vast middle are the guys who are over here because they can’t stand mortgage payments, PTA meetings, malls, marriage counseling, plumbing courses, and all the other avatars of two thousand years of testosterone drilled into a single drop of present-day ambivalence. Over here in the war, that one little drop gets re-distilled into a hundred-proof buzz that comes out shooting flames. These guys cling to war because they’ve peered into the abyss and seen themselves punching a time clock for the rest of their lives.

And then there’s me and Danny. I now know it was no accident we found each other in this maelstrom.

Right from the moment he asked about us being in the same unit with the psychic I knew each of us was there because of a woman.

***

I can’t think of another book that goes to war with Liberace as both good luck charm and weapon. This is to author Martyn Burke’s credit: through a psychic, identical twin Playboy Bunnies, a divergence into madcap Hollywood insanity, and the aforementioned man for whom no fashion cow was sacred enough, Music for Love or War manages to effortlessly sidestep predictability in a war-based narrative.

The story follows two men: Hank and Danny. Hank is a Californian; Danny is from Toronto. Besides enlisting to fight in post-9/11 Afghanistan, the two men share a unique bond: the women they love have been taken from them. In Hank’s case, it’s Annie Boo—Ann Boudreau—who along with her sister Susan jumped/fell into the fame spiral, becoming two of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy harem.

Danny’s story of love and loss, meanwhile, is quite different and far more tragic. Ariana, the woman he fell in love with when they were just teenagers, is the daughter of a man named Sayyid Shah, who we learn (through Ariana’s brother Omar) managed funds for bin Laden in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks. As we experience more of Danny and Ariana’s story, which is interspersed with Hank’s, it becomes clear that not only is their love illicit—were Sayyid to find out there would be no end to the hell Ariana would pay—but it was, from minute one, destined to end badly. And so it does when, years after they first met, became friends, and subsequently lost contact, Omar, having imbibed in his father’s Kool-Aid, sold his sister to an Afghani warlord named Zadran for weapons, ammunition, and fake passports.

So what are two lovelorn souls to do when faced with such loneliness? Enlist, naturally. Except their reasons for doing so were very different from one another: while Hank enlisted to escape the twenty-four-hour “paparasshole” news cycle guaranteed to splash images and video Annie and her sister and their very old and very creepy lover across every magazine and website available, Danny enlisted for the noble purpose of finding Ariana and bringing her home again. As such, while Hank is the voice through which we view the narrative as it unfolds in the present, it’s Danny who gives this book its heart.

There’s a lot to love in Music for Love or War. Split between time periods and locations—Hollywood, Toronto, and “The Mountains,” referring to the mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan—the narrative moves at a brisk clip. The connection between the two men is also well realized, with Hank, either directly or indirectly, assuming the role of Danny’s protector. And while Danny’s unwavering conviction is in stark contrast to Hank, whose personality errs a little more on the practical side of things, one never gets the sense that Hank looks down on or dismisses Danny’s belief in what he’s doing. If anything, it feels sometimes like Hank envies what he sees as Danny’s drive and sense of nobility.

While I felt deeply invested in Danny’s story, I can’t quite say the same for Hank’s, or for that matter the subplot involving the psychic Constance Amonte, who both men lean on for advice on how to handle their troubled love lives. Initially I was intrigued by the Hollywood side of things and all its accompanying craziness; however, the section of the book that takes place in Hollywood, about two-thirds of the way through (the longest section, incidentally), feels as if it was pulled from a different story altogether, with its ridiculous pace of events and equally ridiculous and over-the-top personalities. I’m not saying the sorts of people and situations depicted don’t exist, because they most certainly do, only that the section seemed to diverge enough from the more compelling narrative—Danny’s quest to save Ariana—to be distracting. It was kind of like the bureaucracy scene in Jupiter Ascending, which felt less like something directed by the Wachowski siblings and more like a scene from a lost Terry Gilliam film. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t fit.

Actually that ludicrous scene was the best part of that film, but I digress.

Overall, I quite enjoyed my time with Music for Love or War. Burke’s narrative has a lot of heart to it, and Danny and Ariana’s troubled history felt real—lived in. I almost wish the book had been only their story. That’s not to say Hank’s had no merit, as he is I think a necessary counterpoint for Danny. But when all was said and done, it was Ariana and Danny, and to a lesser extent Omar, who made this story sing.

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