The Ice Beneath You

by Christian Bauman

Published by Scribner

234 pages, 2002


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The Things Jones Carries

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum

 

I tend to read quickly, but The Ice Beneath You by Christian Bauman took me a few weeks to read. Now, that may sound like a beef, but it's not. The fact is, I wanted to read it slowly. I wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything. That's how well Bauman writes, and that's how good his first novel is.

I must admit that I'm not a fan of war novels, and that's how The Ice Beneath You has been billed. It's been compared favorably to Tim O'Brien's seminal war novel, The Things They Carried, which is one of the best five or 10 books I've ever had the great pleasure of reading. But The Ice Beneath You, despite what its publishers might say, is not a war novel. What it is: a double-shot of amazing storytelling. The tale flashes between two related stories: that of Ben Jones, an American soldier in Somalia in 1993, and that of the same Ben Jones, recently returned to U.S. soil and trying to restart his life as a civilian. He's traveling cross-country, looking for a job -- and for himself.

Jones isn't the same young man he was when he entered basic training. He experienced something in Somalia he hadn't signed up for, a catastrophic experience that would forever alter his way of seeing the world, an experience that all but snuffed out both his enthusiasm for life and his innocence of it.

It'd be a tough call, telling you which story I enjoyed more. Both have richly drawn characters, entertaining set pieces and the kind of suspense that makes you afraid of what's going to happen next, even as your eyes move ever closer to the climax.

Bauman writes with an authority I found completely addictive. His depiction of army life benefits greatly from his knowing eye for detail. And that eye is genuine: Bauman, like Jones, was a soldier in Somalia in 1993, and it is his experiences there that form the skeleton of his novel. Hey, nothing resonates like reality. For everything he knows so intimately, Bauman almost dismisses it all in favor of his story and his characters -- and that's not just admirable, it's applaudable.

The detail he does provide is just enough to let you know that this author knows what he's talking about. It's enough to make you comfortable that you're in good hands. You read along, not quite aware that you're learning about war in the late 20th century, completely caught up in Jones' coming of age in a way he never would have imagined for himself.

Along with all this knowingness is a bright-eyed wonder, the rather charming angle that although war today is something we can watch on television, what we see on the news is very far from what soldiers see on the battlefield.

If there's a tragedy in this book, it's Jones' utter disillusionment. The cards he's dealt. As a result of a piercing dose of reality on a boat off the African coast, Jones finds his future altogether not the one he thought he'd have. In that one moment, his innocence, boyhood and dreams all burn away, incinerated. If Jones was ever going to have anything like a normal life after Somalia, it died that night. Is such a loss worse than actually dying? In many ways, that seems to be the question this book asks. And Bauman is plenty smart enough not to answer it.

The title -- The Ice Beneath You -- calls to mind cold things: winter, a frozen lake. But the book defies its title. If a book can have a temperature, then this one is hot, balmy, tense like a humid summer afternoon. It feels close -- and the result is that you're right there with Jones, on the boat, in basic training, in the seedy clubs of the northwest where people go to lose themselves.

Bauman is a man who loves details. This books truly sings in his juxtaposition of those details: He provides not just the right ones, but only those that evoke much more than the sum of the words themselves. Bauman's economical words echo far beyond the pages they're printed on, and this is where the author's real power as a writer lies. In stripping away and stripping away and stripping away, he's ended up at a place that's the opposite of baroque physically, but far beyond baroque in terms of emotional power.

It's Jones' interactions with his buddies, with his lover, with the different facets of himself that make Bauman's debut novel so memorable. Though not a war tale in the normal sense, the novel is one in the emotional sense. If anything, Jones is at war with himself; that is, the man Jones thought he would be is at war with the man Jones now knows he is.

While seeming to promise a story about a (metaphorically) treacherous place to stand, The Ice Beneath You actually delivers a world in which one's perspective, one's whole point of view, is questioned. How do you trust a protagonist who seems hesitant, who seems lost? Here's how: In the hands of a writer who earns your trust, a writer who creates a momentum that's almost hypnotic.

The Ice Beneath You is a novel about character, about a man trying to regain his character -- and it was easily one of my two or three favorite books of last year. To read it is to read the initial daring, the first knowing step, of a novelist who's here to stay. | February 2003

 

Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.