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Review: Jeffery Hess' 'Cold War Canoe Club' offers a look at Navy life at sea and on shore

Cold War Canoe Club, the new short story collection by Florida writer Jeffery Hess, takes readers beyond stereotypes and recruiting videos to reveal a sometimes thrilling, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing picture of life in the U.S. Navy.

Hess draws on his own experience for that realism. He served in the Navy for six years, on its oldest and newest ships, traveling around the world. He now lives in Florida and leads the DD-214 Writers' Workshops for military veterans. He has also edited several anthologies of writing by vets.

Some of the short stories in the book are based on historical events, such as the first one, "Strong to Save." It re-creates the 1949 sinking of the USS Cochino, a submarine patrolling the Barents Sea off the north coasts of Russia and Norway. Hess puts the reader in the place of Thom Dwyer, a young sailor who is looking at a photo of his wife and son when he hears an explosion, followed by the even more dread-inducing sound of the sub's engine dying.

Hess invokes first the pressing sense of fear inside the vessel, then the utterly numbing cold the crew encounters on deck as they flee possible toxic gases inside once the Cochino surfaces — and their struggle to survive as the ship begins to sink. It's a story of stunning heroism couched in the details of one man's life, a man with an unusual motive for surviving.

The title story, which borrows its name from a sailors' nickname for the Navy, employs a first-person plural narrative to convey not just the camaraderie of crews but the shared senses of boredom and adventure, frustration and pride, and the reasons they go to sea in the first place: "Maybe it was because of land shrinking and then disappearing behind us. Maybe it was the freedom from roads or stop signs and the practical recklessness of leaving terra firma and trusting our souls to boats and motors. Maybe it was the unknown that could happen out there."

During long months at sea, though, that shipboard camaraderie can sour, as it does in "Last Battle Aboard the Old Pro." Its narrator, Rudy, is about to receive a promotion, and an informal ritual allows everyone aboard above a certain rank to punch him once: "Tacking on my chevron."

But the rite of passage goes sideways when he impulsively breaks the rules by punching first after an obnoxious new guy seems to be spoiling for a real fight. Rudy could lose the promotion and end up in the brig, but new guy offers a deal: Just be his friend and he'll lie about his injury. On land, pretending to play that role for a while might seem like a reasonable tradeoff. For Rudy, facing months at sea with no place to ghost his "friend," the decision is complex.

Some of the stories come ashore to look at the families of those at sea, or at Navy veterans. In "The Greatest Danger of All Would Be to Do Nothing," a young woman named Kate is terrified by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Living in Tampa while her husband, Darwin, is serving in the Navy, she's already teetering on the edge of breakdown, laying her husband's best suit out on his side of the bed and sleeping beside it in her party dresses. Now she's pregnant and overwhelmed by fear of nuclear annihilation — not just for herself but for her unborn child. That leads her to an unexpected course of action with perils of its own.

The book's final story, "Military Clean," is narrated by a vet who has been a civilian for years. It hasn't all been easy, but he's raising a teenage son and running a house-cleaning business with the titular name. Then the past walks into his backyard as he's grilling a steak: a man named Flash. As Flash says to him: "We were partners. Running buddies. We were f------ Vikings, man. You can't make friends like that out here."

They have matching tattoos; they even resemble each other. But while the narrator was building a business, Flash was in a military prison — for a crime they committed together. Restitution takes a surprising form.

Hess' clean style, influenced by modern crime fiction, keeps the stories in Cold War Canoe Club sailing along, their plots on course to give the reader an insider's look at life at sea, and how it reverberates on shore.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.