Slouching towards Baghdad

University alumnus Joel Turnipseed talks about his new book

by Gabriel Shapiro

Traveling works as a metaphor to describe many things. The idea of going somewhere, traveling physically through space from one point to another, is an easy stand-in for the acts of maturing, learning and gaining experience. The road as life, the highway, the trail, the long and winding path leads into the future or stretches it back toward the horizon of the past.

Joel Turnipseed is a long-hauler both metaphorically and literally. He has come from the land of the angry young man to end up as an acclaimed first-time novelist, via the University’s philosophy program, the Marines and the gulf war, along with some other stops on the way. During his stint in the war, he transported munitions across the Saudi Arabian desert. This was “the legendary ‘Baghdad Express.’ The greatest logistical operation in Marine Corps history, the Baghdad Express hauled truckloads of explosives and ammunition across hundreds of miles of desert.”

Today Turnipseed is doing a lot of traveling, this time to promote his book, also called “Baghdad Express,” which has been receiving rave reviews and gotten him plenty of questions about his opinions on war, the George W. Bush administration and the state of international relations.

In his book, Turnipseed recounts a number of experiences from the war, but more than that he gets at the question of how to come to terms with yourself. He explains how, in the quiet moments, we learn to make sense of our lives, our pasts, our situations and our place in the world. This is a war story, but huge battles painted in gory detail, generals giving great speeches and other cliches of the genre are absent. “Baghdad Express” focuses on a young man’s journey from ignorance to experience, toward an understanding of himself and his identity.

The war is a background, a setting that makes the journey possible. The reality of the situation comes across easily. It is his displacement and the absurdity of his situation that allows Turnipseed to become “the Professor,” the always-reading, introspective and wise-ass persona he simultaneously adopts and has put on him by his comrades. “The Professor” is a sort-of Joel-within-Joel, allowing him, after returning from the war, to look at himself, extracting the meaningful parts and stringing them together along the road through the war.

Written in a very humorous and engaging style, the book is a page-turner. This does not preclude it from having a certain gravitas. It is, after all, set during a war, which is no laughing matter. But more than that, it traces out the very personal, if not somewhat familiar, path of a young man embittered by a dysfunctional family and the general indifference of a society that has failed to give people like him anything but fuel for their rage and despair.

The ease of identification with Joel, the detail of the situation and the unique nuances, particularly evident in the extremely clever graphic novel-style interludes at the ends of several of the chapters, make “Baghdad Express” able to make elements of one man’s life more universal without having to become sappy or dull.

When asked about how his journey from student to soldier to author has been, Turnipseed simply said “long.” He continued, “Long is the number-one answer, but also weird, flunking out as a ‘U’ philosophy student and then getting called up for the gulf war. But also then coming back and having one of the guys from the ‘Dog Pound’ (Turnipseed’s tentmates during one stretch of the war) call up and say ‘Hey professor, when are you going to write the book?’ and I just said, ‘What book?’ ” The book, of course was the story of the Dog Pound, or at least that might be the story his comrade might have wanted to read, but the call that came from without was echoed within. “I had this 2.9 GPA and I’m not going to be this famous philosopher, so what am I going to do?”

Turnipseed decided to go meet his Dog Pound compatriot, Hatch, in Philadelphia. “I rented a private cabin on the Amtrak and took a carton of cigarettes and a fountain pen and a bunch of empty journals. I didn’t end up finding Hatch, but I did stay at my grandparents’ for six weeks in Connecticut and went to New York and sort of did it all as my ‘vision quest’ and came back with about a hundred pages of manuscript.” This was an unforeseen development.

Having never fashioned himself as a writer per se, he had never considered what it would entail. “I wanted to be more an intellectual than a narrative writer if I was going to be a writer at all,” he said laughing, but upon showing his manuscript to some friends who worked in publishing he found he had something worth pursuing on his hands. “I basically dropped my classes and decided I am going to be a writer. This is all in the fall of 1993; I decide to just drop everything, get a job waiting tables and just write.”

By 1995 he had started to win some awards, later to include being a waiter/scholar at Bread Loaf, a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellow and a resident at The Loft. He also enrolled in some courses in the MFA program at the “U” and started making connections.

Rubbing elbows with the other future great American writers was great experience, and Turnipseed sold a piece from the manuscript that became “Baghdad Express” to GQ Magazine in 1997. Fame was still over an increasingly distant horizon, and as tension to do something mounted, so did the pressure to turn away from writing. “In 1998 I was basically a 30-year-old college dropout guy who had won all these awards and been in GQ, but so what, you’re waiting tables for 15 grand a year. In the fall of 1997 I had started to work for Chrysler as a tech writer and process engineer, and I just said ‘forget it, I’ll never be a writer’ and I put it all away; I put the manuscript away and had a very successful career in technology. I got promoted quickly and was a very good programmer and manager, and I started my own company in 2000 and sold it last summer.”

“After the ‘Axis of Evil’ speech, or axles of evil as I like to call it, I saw an old friend from Bread Loaf, Ted Genoways, at Open Book downtown, and we got together and he turned out to be an editor at the Minnesota State Historical Society Press. He asked what ever happened to my book and I told him I gave it up and became this software guy and I had a nice house in Northeast and I golfed and trout-fished and whatever and he was just like ‘yeah, well you’re a writer.’ I thought, ‘whatever, you say so.’ I had had my brief moment in the minor leagues and I thought software was what I’d be doing for the rest of my life.”

But then writing called again, and Turnipseed’s chance meeting with Genoways meant that this time it was an invitation to the big show, not the minors. “Well, then Ted says ‘we’re going to buy your book.’ And he goes on ‘not only are we going to buy it, but we’re going to make it our big book next year.’ And look where we are now.”

With the book’s release coming as it did so close to the latest war in Iraq, Turnipseed has found himself called upon to comment, as a veteran, a Marine, an author and a critic, on the current state of affairs. The first thing that distinguishes him from many of the other commentators is that he’s not easily pigeonholed, “which is what a storyteller should be, actually” he quipped. Describing his need to blend all his disparate roles into a sort of mega-hat he can wear for the many interrogators he faces, he said, “My own tendency is to be melodramatically intellectual, which comes from being angry, so my first impulse is not my best. My better side is that which tries to get people, with all the moral and intellectual generosity they have, to imagine what that experience is like.” He continued, saying to follow his other, potentially more confrontational impulses to taunt middle-America or toss expletives at the Bush administration “is not only bad PR, but fails at some level the moral impetus of what a storyteller is supposed to do, which is to be morally and intellectually generous and create a world in words that other people can participate in and see and feel what that’s like.”

Musing on the highlights of his recent literary acclaim and entry into the world of the professional author, Turnipseed gets a bit philosophical, which comes as no surprise, and seems to hint at a desire to stay a while on the path he finds himself presently. “The single coolest thing about it is that you’re now outside. You’re in this Olympian position where you don’t have a day job, you don’t have a boss, you don’t have a deadline tomorrow. Your official title is ‘fly on the wall of society,’ and as long as you can somehow stick to the wall, that’s great. I get paid to think about what it’s like to be a human being. I call someone up at Salon.com and say ‘hey, I want to pitch an article about T.E. Lawrence in the gulf war’ and they’re like ‘OK, you’ve got 2,000 words by next Monday’ and I’m like ‘hey, did I just do that?’ Or The New York Times magazine calls you up and they ask ‘were you ever bombed?’ and I say ‘yeah,’ and they’re like ‘do you want to write 700 words?’ ‘Sure!’ And being part of that weird Olympian world of the professional creative and thinking class, no matter how ill-paying and tenuous, is a pretty cool feeling.”

Pretty cool, indeed, and not a bad ride so far for the angry young man turned philosophy dropout, Marine trucker, software entrepreneur and any of the other permutations of Joel Turnipseed, a man for whom life has become richer in the telling, if not only for him, then certainly for all of us who have read what will likely be the first in a long list of great American writings.

Joel Turnipseed will discuss “Baghdad Express” at 2 p.m., April 29 at the Coffman Union Bookstore, (612) 625-6000.

He will also appear at 7:30 p.m., April 29 at Ruminator Books in St. Paul, (651) 699-0587.

Both events are free.

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]