eBook (PDF), 256 Pages
“Permanent Party is – what? A Vietnam-era W.A.C.’s Catch-22? A roman-à-clef? A murder mystery? A poetic memoir? Barr’s ear for dialogue is flawless, her descriptions of human physiognomy hilarious. The dramatic rhythm is sporadic and punctuated, deliberately defying the breathless crescendi of fiction with the unresolved panics and careless lulls of real life in a gigantic bureaucracy. Small, throwaway bits of telling detail -- peeling paint chips, a dog’s sneeze on being patted, the smell of chicken frying -- give the entire book a sensuous texture. The characters in this woman’s Army are so steeped in weirdness they wouldn’t have been out of place in my college dorm (and we were the campus hippies).” -- E.J. Barnes, Tales Of The Ling Master
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Aug 4, 2011Donna Barr, Permanent Party (Clallam Bay: Fine Line Press, 2005). 250pp. Insightful and replete with worldly knowledge, Donna Barr’s book breaks with conventional narrative models such as: girl meets boy; woman has baby and finds man; love and happiness wait at the end of the thorny path; trial and error make you a better person. Barr assigns no genre to her narrative, which neither presents entirely fictitious material nor does it portray people and events in a mimetic mode. The realism of her writing is selective and perspectival; her narrative point of view is a woman’s or women’s point of view. Barr’s protagonists are women of different background living in close quarters in the hierarchically ordered collective of the US Armed Forces. They bring with them their diverse cultural experiences, African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, or Asian. They also define themselves through different national origins, in the case of the central character Liz Reuter, German. Beyond that, the... More > military as an institution, mirrors the larger society and imposes political ethnicities: Black, White, Hispanic, i.e. Brown. The presence of the attendant derogatory epithets reveals racial undercurrents that create allegiances on the basis of skin color and come to the fore in moments of crisis. Wearing in uniforms and cultivating soldierly manners that include drinking, cursing, and posturing, Barr’s women characters have individual and personal needs, notably the need for privacy in an environment that provides little personal space, and self-expression that the flamboyant Stella Klein achieves through costumes and impersonation, and Liz by reading and escaping into her tree. Most important, these soldiers are females, even though they are excluded from bearing arms and combat duty in the early 1970s, the setting of Barr’s book. Relegated to a secondary career tier, like nuns in the religious establishment, they are separate but unequal, vulnerable to sexual harassment and exploitation as one character, Barb, points out: “We be the Army’s personal whores” (10). Their biology puts them in jeopardy: all talk of morals and precaution aside, young fertile females run the risk of becoming pregnant. On the one hand, a baby may be a woman’s way out of the Army—the system considers mothers an undue burden, and they are discharged. On the other hand, pregnancy may also end the career of a woman who wants to stay on. She faces the alternative of having an abortion or having the child. The story of the apparently not-all-too bright, unobtrusive W.A.C. Mary Talbot, who conceals her pregnancy although she lives in immediate proximity with her colleagues, and whose child dies—some say it was murdered—and disappears. Not even the astute and hard-working heroine Liz, whose closely examined problems revolve around an impending promotion and authority-related issues, is aware of the situation. Only in retrospect does she come to a realization of what she saw and the possible implications, and she decides to keep her secret. In other words, there is no solution to Barr’s narrative, no higher agent steps in to set the world right. The restructured unit’s long-expected move to a different facility may or may not improve the women’s quality of life, but the Army is the Army with its exasperating routine and absurd moments. Reading Permanent Party one begins to wonder what purpose other than the daily grind is served by Liz’s, and for that matter, other similar units. The work effort, questionable to begin with, produces nothing in a materialistic or idealistic sense; the war in Vietnam goes badly; and the news from overseas are discouraging. In Barr’s Kafkaesque military universe there is little correlation between rank and competence. Among the obscure rules regulating promotions favoritism looms large. Down-to-earth Liz arranges herself with this universe because she expects little except her GI benefits—least of all miracles. Yet, Permanent Party is anything but bleak. A sense of humor permeates Barr’s prose, manifest in subtle double entendres and episodes that are plain funny. Another important feature is the love of nature, revealed in the descriptions of the Washington state scenery and the interest in domestic and wild animals, dogs, birds, and deer taking the narrator outside the man-made world of the barracks. Dialogues are a strong suit in the book. Barr finds just the right tone to sketch characters from their speech patterns, their idiom and timbre. The action flows from the spoken word colored by dialects and personal idiosyncrasies. Equally effective are the descriptive segments written with an unerring sense of style and accuracy. Clearly, not only the passionate reader Liz Reuter, but also Donna Barr, is widely read in the European classics. Permanent Party moves between historical lines, the 1970s and early 21st century culture when the debates about the role of women in the military, sexuality, abortion and illegitimate birth have been anything but laid to rest. The 1990s and post-9/11 wars in the Middle East may now overshadow the Vietnam war in scope and duration, and the increasingly inescapable long-term effects of these conflicts constitute today’s challenge to society. Clearly, those developments call for a close look at the institution of the military as provided in Donna Barr’s book, looking out from the inside, and looking up from the bottom. Dagmar C. G. Lorenz< Less
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- Donna Barr (Standard Copyright License)
- A Fine Line press
- October 2, 2011
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