What does a veteran do when he devotes his life to fighting for his country, only to see it turning into a place he doesn’t recognize?
In his stunning 2009 book, “The Good Soldiers,” journalist David Finkel wrote about being embedded with an infantry division during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, focusing on the experiences of individual soldiers. He followed it in 2013 with “Thank You for Your Service,” a searing account of how some of those soldiers struggled after they returned home. The latter book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction and was made into a 2017 movie staring Miles Teller.
Now, more than a decade later, Finkel follows the long echo of that war, and the war at home, with “An American Dreamer: Life in a Divided Country.”
Finkel was a reporter and editor at the then-St. Petersburg Times before going to the Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. He was named a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow in 2012.
In his three books, Finkel’s reporting is intimate and long term, taking the reader inside the details of his subjects’ daily lives.
His principal subject in “An American Dreamer” is Brent Cummings, who was one of the unforgettable characters in “The Good Soldiers.” Finkel has known Cummings for more than 15 years, and in this book he immerses himself in the veteran’s life after Iraq and in retirement after 28 years in the military.
Cummings now lives in an outer Atlanta suburb that Finkel calls Pleasantville, full of big, comfortable houses with inviting porches. It’s in Forsyth County, whose history is not so inviting — in 1912, after the lynching of a Black man, its white residents drove out all the Black people in the county in an eruption of racial violence, and it remained all white until the 1980s.
Cummings and his family are white, but he doesn’t feel at home in Pleasantville. Part of it is the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that still dog him, especially a deeply disturbing dream that he is floating in a limitless dark space, seeing and hearing nothing but distant laughter. He wakes from the dream screaming so loudly that his older daughter, Emily, doesn’t invite friends to spend the night.
But the dream isn’t the only thing that troubles him. Born and raised in Mississippi, where he learned the skills of shooting and hunting, he’s “a white male pickup-driving ex-soldier living in a Georgia county where in 2016 Donald Trump received 71 percent of the vote.” So, he thinks, he should fit right in in Pleasantville, but he doesn’t, and the reason is Trump.
From the day in 2015 Trump came down the golden escalator and announced he was running for president, a day Cummings was about to come home from a military posting in Jerusalem, the soldier had had reservations. One big problem for him and his wife, Laura, was Trump’s frequent disparagement of veterans and their families. And both were revolted when Trump mocked a disabled reporter at a 2015 rally.
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Their younger daughter, Meredith, has Down syndrome. After her birth, Cummings, in tears in a moment of shock at the diagnosis, asked his father what he was going to do. His father’s response: “Brent, you’re going to love her.”
And they do. But after Trump’s election, they wonder what kind of world she’s growing up in. “If anything made her vulnerable to the fearmongering of a president, it was this,” Laura thinks, “... the internal fears of someone wondering about a life’s meaning and a life’s worth.”
Cummings sees Trump’s effects all around him. Before he retires, he’s assigned to oversee the ROTC program at the University of North Georgia, where he’s surprised to see one of the rifle drill teams using an insignia with a version of the Confederate flag. “’Holy cow. Really?’ Brent thought the first time he saw it.”
But when he tells them to replace it, he’s stunned by the vehement backlash from faculty, staff and students. “Another administrator, who said he was emboldened by Donald Trump’s election, told Brent, ‘We won.’”
Brent is friendly with their next-door neighbor, Michael. As the result of an accident, Michael is a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair, and Brent admires his determination to live independently.
But they, too, eventually clash over Trump, because, as Michael says, “I hate everything liberal,” and because his greatest fear is losing his guns.
Finkel follows Cummings and his family through the years of Trump’s administration and the election of 2020 and its shocking aftermath. With flashbacks to Cummings’ military experience, he illustrates how exposure to the wider world made Cummings more tolerant and compassionate — and taught him firsthand that the fury of violence can turn a man into someone he doesn’t recognize, and long regrets.
It also makes him a compelling witness to the “fracturing America” he has come home to.
An American Dreamer: Life in a Divided Country
By David Finkel
Random House, 256 pages, $32