Charles Holdefer’s latest novel, The Contractor (Permanent Press 2007), opens with a single question that drives the entire narrative forward: Who are you? Posed by a prisoner in a Guantanamo Bay-style secret prison, this seemingly simple question haunts George Young, the novel’s narrator, and forces him to take a long, hard look at how his life has led him to a career as a civilian interrogator for the U.S. government. More importantly, perhaps, this question allows the reader to move far beyond headlines, political rhetoric, and theoretical generalizations about the use of torture to extract information from suspected terrorists and, instead, paints an intimate portrait of one man’s participation in the vast machinery that utilizes such techniques to gather information. In so doing, Holdefer forces us to recognize that wars aren’t fought by nations, but by individuals.
Significantly, very little of The Contractor takes place in the remote prison where George Young works. Yes, Holdefer does a superb job of bringing the details of George’s work situation to life, but the real power of this novel derives from the author’s exploration of the title character’s familial obligations. Forbidden from discussing his work with anyone outside of the prison, George has grown distant from his wife and children by the start of the novel. Indeed, as his wife slips into a haze of alcoholism and his children become increasingly mysterious to him, George’s most intimate acquaintance is with the family cat. Add a struggling brother, a crotchety father-in-law, and a claustrophobic holiday visit back home to the mix, and George’s life becomes a dramatic tangle of self-doubt and confusion. And, needless to say, his dogged efforts at untangling the deeply intertwined knots of work and family drives the novel forward to a searing, shuddering conclusion.
To put it bluntly, The Contractor demonstrates why the novel will always be a viable art form and why the small press is so important to keeping that art form alive. The novel, at its best, places the reader in the skin of the protagonist and allows the reader to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. As such, it removes us from our comfort zones and causes each of our worldviews to shift as if on an axis, if only for a brief period of time. Yet in that time when we inhabit the bodies of strangers, their struggles become our struggles, and the world becomes new for us. We emerge from the experience changed and look at the world through new eyes. This process, of course, is not always comfortable—hence the need for the small press, the press whose concern is not with providing mass-market thrills so much as thoughtful transformation. It is, however, always enlightening.
Like all great literature, The Contractor provides such enlightenment and then some. It does for the war on terror what Don DeLillo’s Falling Man did for the terror attacks of September 11, and what Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried did for the Vietnam War. It avoids saying “here’s the story” and instead says “here’s a story.” And in giving us a story, the novel brings its subject to life in a way that is both disturbing and beautiful. As fascinating as it is moving, Holdefer’s novel is not to be ignored.