Samuel Finlay’s “Breakfast with the Dirt Cult”: A Review
An Oklahoman walks into a strip bar in Montreal. No, this isn’t John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream, this is Breakfast with the Dirt Cult by Samuel Finlay, and from this unconventional beginning I was hooked. Part-war diary, part-romance novel, part-Spenglerian commentary on the state of a civilization being run into the ground by delusional ideologues and kleptocrats who’ve just about finished stripping the last of the copper wiring out, this book is all heart. It is a hero’s journey set in a world where heroism is no longer held in high esteem by the ruling classes, the last of a dying breed: A soldier in love with a stripper.
For a country that talks so much about veterans, we sure do a hell of a job of making sure they get shut out of representation in our culture. It used to be different. Steve McQueen was a drifter who joined the Marines, kept getting demoted back to private, spent forty-one days in the brig on bread and water for letting a weekend pass-run into a two-week affair with his girlfriend, redeemed himself by saving the lives of five other marines after an accident at sea on a training exercise in the Arctic. It was serving in the Air Force that enabled Johnny Cash to scrape up enough money to buy a guitar, and it was while he was stationed in Germany that he formed his first band. Clint Eastwood was drafted into the army during Korea and narrowly survived a plane crash into the Pacific. Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Robert Heinlein, and Kurt Vonnegut all saw action in WWII. In 1942, Jack Kerouac got drunk and joined the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard — all in one day. A young airman, Hunter S. Thompson, started his writing career as a columnist for his base’s newspaper.
So why do we see so few veterans of our recent wars represented in media? Why did the author of Breakfast with the Dirt Cult had to go through five-to-eight hundred rejections before finally deciding to self-publish the book?
As Afghanistan, our longest war, appears to finally be coming to a close, Samuel’s book offers a valuable insight into the experience of that war from the perspective of a man fighting in it. Long months of boredom and drudgery interspersed with intense moments of violence, this account makes you feel almost as if the hot Afghan wind is blowing in your face. It also offers insight into what was going wrong: The insanity of military bureaucracy and the almost caste-like antipathy between the brass, the officer corps, the NCOs, and the grunts, all seemingly determined to shit on each other — but the shit all seems to run down to the bottom where the book’s protagonist, Tom Walton, is doing his damndest to win the hearts and minds of those he can reach while putting rounds of 5.56 into the hearts and minds of those he can’t. And then there is what he had to witness that was out of his hands, that never should have happened, but did because this is war and that’s what happens in war. Bodies of children lined up in rows because a gunship pilot mistook them for a band of insurgents. War is hell, and Tom Walton is like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, giving us a grand tour of it.
The protagonist is caught between two alien cultures: one manufactured by his own country’s elites, and that of Afghanistan. He hates the Haji for putting women and children in danger, but he gives respect where it’s due, to the ones who refuse to be domesticated by the Global American Empire. It is evident that this chasm between cultures was one of the main factors that led to our policymakers and military leadership so thoroughly screwing up this conflict. Can a deracinated modern man understand an enemy so thoroughly rooted in the land that he says “If all Afghans die, the soil of Afghanistan will haunt you”? It’s doubtful. Our leaders confuse their incentives with the other side’s incentives too much. Our government goes into these countries and throws around cash because it only seems natural to the people running our system that a person would sell out their country for fifty pieces of silver, because that is exactly what they would do under the same circumstances. And it is these decadent bureaucrats, along with a culture of empty materialism, modern sexual relations, feminism, masculinity, nationalism, military bureaucracy, consumerism, that he addresses in soliloquies interspersed among his account of the day-in and day-out grind soldiering and the romantic relationship he was pursuing throughout all of this. This one in particular struck me, as it summed up a lot about the fundamental situation facing America today in one short paragraph:
“[Walton’s] yeoman ancestors, with their toughness, high degree of religiosity, and community-centered norms and values, had been handy to have around for whenever the country had needed people to till the dirt, settle the frontier, bale hay, pick cotton, mine coal, turn bolts, work railroads, and fight wars. However, their descendants in the brave new world were to be fitted with a yoke of shame, and to be unofficially branded as trash or vilified in their own home. They were to be fed a steady diet of dissention, entertainment, and dependency infrastructure lest they maintain some semblance of backbone and self-reliance. Didn’t the silly Proles know that modern nation-state was now just supposed to be a market of ‘human capital’ and not a sovereign country of citizens?”
The gritty narrative of the author’s experiences doesn’t just capture the zeitgeist of the war in Afghanistan, but of that period in modern history when internet usage was still utilitarian in nature for most users, before the rise of social media and dating apps. This story reminded me of that era, and how much more real and intense everything in it felt. We catch a glimpse of this change at the end of the book, where the protagonist meets a woman through a dating site. In contrast to his earlier romance with a girl he met in a strip club, this encounter is transactional and fleeting. As Finlay makes clear, and contrary to the mainstream narrative, it is not the sexlessness that really drives the dissatisfaction of young men and women, but rather lovelessness. While the former can be ameliorated with a flight to the Philippines or a dive bar just off post, the latter only comes from the heart, and this is a world full of wounded hearts. This is, as Finlay says, largely attributable to the sexual revolution’s destruction of cultural boundaries that guided sexual behavior in a way that was both good for individuals and society at large.
Breakfast with the Dirt Cult is, in short, a work that does not strictly stick to its genre. It’s a war memoir, it’s a reflection on a tragic romance, it’s a clarion call for Americans to start waking up and taking our situation seriously. It’s an enjoyable read that will make you laugh one minute and have you in quiet solemnity the next. It’s a good book.
The era where mainstream publishing houses engage in bidding wars against each other for the rights to publish works such as this is over. They’ve put the bad boys out to pasture. That 50 Shades of Grey can be published, but not this, is further proof that the publishing industry is entering into the same decadent slide as many of our other cultural institutions. But the demand for a man’s point of view is still there, and a new literary movement, one to whom this author belongs, is bubbling up guerrilla-style. An early adopter in the self-publishing game, Finlay’s relative success, along with the enormous underground phenomena of self-published works since then, shows that this is not an outlier, but likely an indication of where the literary industry as a whole is headed.