The great swath of American identity that is its military is rarely explored in contemporary literary fiction. Military power is often analyzed in the abstract, and the individuals whom it envelops – and exploits – become invisible parts of the whole. Dewaine Farria’s debut novel-in-stories, “Revolutions of All Colors,” artfully weaves the complexities of racialized characters not only in the military itself, but in a nation in which everyday life is influenced by its presence.

Cover courtesy of Syracuse University Press

Farria, co-editor of The Maine Review, skillfully embodies multiple voices across generations, a real strength of the book’s narrative. The novel opens in 1970s New Orleans, where the Black Panthers are gaining a political foothold before a violent shoot-out with police. It then follows Ettie, whose child Simon was fathered by one of the imprisoned Black Panthers leaders, to Oklahoma. There, she and her neighbor Frank, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, work in a prison and their sons become friends. As Simon, Gabriel, and Michael grow up, they diverge and converge again across time, space and ideals.

“Revolutions of All Colors” is a thorny book, full of complicated characters who sometimes make questionable, even immoral, decisions, but who are also a product of the nation that reared them. They are driven primarily by love, but in a country where white supremacy, capitalism and violent power are ubiquitous, to where can love really drive? This seems to be a central unspoken question for the characters and the narrative overall.

Early in the book, Frank recounts in detail some of his experiences in Vietnam as a kind of warning parable for the teenage Michael, Gabriel and Simon. But it is not a neat story. Frank describes his “nineteen-year-old mind figuring that surely this many people wouldn’t expel this much effort on something wrong, would they?” His description of “Black draftees marching for an empire that didn’t want us” and the grief, even resentment, around the military’s exploitation of young people whose minds are still developing is seemingly at odds with his belief that “prison and war encourage ingenuity;” that “war is hell, but at its height it’s also life. Life multiplied by some number no one’s heard of yet.”

The teenagers on the receiving end of this story take it with them in different ways as they age. Farria dexterously explores sexual fluidity, masculinity and the corporeality of intersecting identities, and does not shy away from imbuing his characters with their fair share of internalized and externalized misogyny, part of “Black masculinity’s rigid confines of expression.”

As the book moves through stories of tenderness and horrifying violence, from New York to Somalia and places in between, the reader is challenged to question what it means to simultaneously hold these integral parts of American existence – the tenderness and the violence. Farria hints at the inherited violence of a militarized nation. As Michael sinks into an obsession with boxing, Simon observes his relationship with the “Fight God”: “‘Make friends with the pain,’ the Fight God whispers, ‘and you’ll never be alone.’” Farria brings this complex relationship with pain and brutality of empire into the literary canon with searing prose, and it demands we look.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.

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