Ever read something and feel like you know the person who wrote it when you’re finished?
That’s how I felt after a few nights with “Breakfast with the Dirt Cult.” If you can imagine opening up someone’s brain and jumping into the river of consciousness, this is it. Working in the media, we get a lot of book review requests, and pass over almost all of them — most times without opening the email — so when my boss forwarded this book to our foreign policy team, I took a look. When a pitch warns me something is vulgar, I take that as a challenge; much to my reporters’ chagrin, I called editor dibs.
“Breakfast with the Dirt Cult” follows a portion of the tumultuous twenties of infantryman Thomas Walton, from Oklahoma to Afghanistan to a military hospital in Maryland. Without giving too much away, it tells the story of a man tackling what it means to be a man (and not man as you see them today, but the hot-blooded, testosterone-filled man that seems to be going extinct). As Walton says, “A bunch of cavemen in the physical prime of their lives with piss and vinegar in their veins ’cause they’re ‘lonesome, ornery, and mean.’”
It’s the kind of book author Samuel Finlay wished he had had when he was 18 — before he went to war — and desperately unsure of what to do with himself. It hides nothing, and tells the reader every nitty, gritty, dirty thing they can expect from the military.
The book arrived in only a couple days with a handwritten note from Finlay. It’s not a laborious read, at a comfortable 312 pages. In fact, I almost wish it was another hundred pages, because I wasn’t done with the story when it finished. It has everything you could ever want: love, drama, action, suspense and heartbreak, to name a few.
Aside from being a compelling novel, Finlay tackles harsh debates raging in America now. Feminism, women in the military, war, politics and religion are all dissected in a thought-provoking narrative of vulgarity and philosophical musings.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Finlay. Comparing the book’s viscerality to the mild-mannered southern drawl that explained it to me over Skype was jarring. We laughed through much of the interview, something I chalk up to this author being genuinely authentic.
The book’s title, he said, “grew on me from hearing ‘The Warrior Cult’ [phrase] before I joined [the military]. Over the course of serving you kind of get used to the guys around you and the fact that you can trust them, whether you like them or not, and you’re stuck with each other. You come to see them do crazy things or heroic things, you’re like a cult unto yourselves. I’m a breakfast guy, for one thing. There’s something about being able to sit and take my time. I wouldn’t say I enjoy waking up early, it’s one of those things I made my peace with, it’s going to happen. That’s where the breakfast comes in. You get up in the morning and you’re cold or miserable and you get to have some food. I remember one time, Sergeant Bronson was cooking coffee over some burning C4 and I thought that was great.
“I wanted to write the sort of book I could have used when I was 18. When I was getting ready to leave college — I was 22 at the time — I was thinking about joining the service. I wanted to know as much as I could. I started reading biographies and autobiographies and I felt like there was always something they weren’t telling me,” he said. “What I saw was very different and very raw and you have some very strong reactions to it. This is honestly how we felt, talked and thought. We’re not these video game-esque, two-dimensional GI Joes, but we’re not these evil oppressing tyrants, either. We’re human beings, and this is what happens when we’re in this sort of situation.”
Finlay’s upbringing plays a large part in how Walton sees the world. “I’m from the middle of Oklahoma. I look at things through the context of those people and how we believe. As soon as I started getting older I began to note the way we are came to be very different than the way things are portrayed in the media. We’re to be these interchangeable, fungible units. Radically breaking from the past and anything that came before.
“There was a lot of being torn between things. For instance, in terms of romance, how I was raised, an old fashioned way of things. You marry young, stay married, have children– what was normal up until the ’60s. I had seen over the course of growing up how that cultural bomb went off and its effects. I respect what my grandparents had a lot more than what my contemporaries had. I wanted that. On the other hand, what do you do when the whole culture is rigged against it? On one hand, you’re wanting these things, on the other, you really want to keep yourself separate from them because there are real-world consequences.”
He keeps in touch with most members of Alpha Company, Second Platoon (people you will want to meet by the time you’re done). “Yeah, a lot of us keep contact through Facebook, occasionally we call each other,” Finlay said. “Everyone’s doing well, marrying off and having children, commiserating about getting older.”
They’ve been pretty receptive to being a part of his book, too. “I haven’t heard anything negative from them, thankfully,” he laughed. “An infantry platoon mad at you is not something you want, so, so far so good. They were enthusiastic about it.”
At one point in our interview, Finlay actually censored himself when retelling teammates’ reactions to his book: “‘I remember when this mother blanker did this!'” Finlay said, quoting one reaction. I laughed and stopped him, asking if he’d actually just censored himself when talking about a book with gems like, “Thomas Motherfuckin’ Walton. We meet again. How’s the motherfuckin’ ol’ prodigal roommate? Get your punk-ass on in here.”
Witnessing the lost art of acting a gentleman is always refreshing, but I told him to swear all he damn wants. He obliged.
“Breakfast with the Dirt Cult” became an outlet of sorts, Finlay said. Readers get to experience the raw emotions people reserve for the privacy of their minds. “There are things I’m trying to say. I spent a lot of time in my head,” Finlay said. “You spend so much time pulling security or whatever, throughout my life I’ll sit and marinate on stuff. You process thoughts and feelings. It’s difficult enough to get a hold of it yourself, but to convey it to others? I was thinking about stuff and going, ‘How on Earth do I make someone who isn’t used to me or how I think understand that?'”
He hopes to spend some time homesteading now. If you’re not familiar with what that is, it’s like a throwback to the 19th century complete with house-building, self-sufficiency and generally taking care of yourself. “Grow my beard out and be in a woods. I’d like to get me a place in the mountains with a little garden and a bunch of animals and live like a techno hobbit and quietly go on my way.”
The here and now is a trickier question. “Right now?” Finlay paused. “Well, what am I doing?” He laughed and took a moment to answer, “I’m working on a screen play. I’ll probably be staying in Oklahoma for awhile, I might do some travelling.
“I feel comfortable here. I feel comfortable with the people. I’m not going to be a hippy pagan about this but, there’s like, the way the land is and how the people are, there are differences, and I feel at home here. That’s not to say I’ll stay here forever. I allude to this in the novel, there’s this atomization of how we live now. I complained about that, reaching a place where I’d been everywhere I wanted to go, and instead of chasing, I’d stop and be around my folks for awhile. I’d like to attempt to practice what I preach and renew relations with people I know and love.”
Luckily, according to Finlay, he already has a leg up on growing older. “Healing from the surgeries was one of the quickest things to get over. I still don’t recognize myself, which on some level still bothers me. On the other hand, I’ve consoled myself with the fact that I’m going to get old, and so this is already, the trauma, I’m already used to the trauma of not recognizing myself. If everyone lives long enough they have to go through that, too, so I like to think I’m already prepared in that regard.”
I haven’t read a book for fun in an embarrassingly long time, and I’m so glad I picked it back up with “Breakfast with the Dirt Cult.” What started as part of the job ended in pleasure. It will drag you in, one page at a time, until you are hopelessly emerged in the hopes, dreams and fears of a man you have never met, in a place you may never have been.
If you do anything for yourself this week, save the money you’re going to spend on those three beers or two pumpkin spice lattes and go buy this book.
And ladies, watch out. You may get swept away by this story and spit out on the other end with a little bit of a crush.
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