Lea Carpenter’s “Eleven Days” is at once a deeply affecting story about a mother and a son that attests to the debut of an extraordinarily gifted writer and a conceptually flawed novel about a fictional Navy SEAL raid that just happens to take place May 2, 2011, the same night as the one that killed Osama bin Laden.
Because Carpenter has created two such compelling and psychologically detailed central characters – an editor named Sara and her son, Jason, who is an elite SEAL team member – and because she has such appreciation for the competence and courage of special-forces operatives, “Eleven Days” ultimately overrides the many lumps in its narrative.
Still, the reader can’t help but wonder why Carpenter would invite such close comparisons with the bin Laden raid, to the degree that her story often reads like a botched version of that operation.
It’s only when the reader with some effort stops comparing Carpenter’s account with actual events that the magic of her writing can take over.
We learn of Sara’s doomed romance with Jason’s father – a charming, cynical CIA officer, who often seems reminiscent of the alluring but hard-hearted men in Joan Didion novels – and of his disappearance from their lives when Jason was 6. We learn of Sara’s determination, as a single mother, to give Jason a normal childhood and her decision to move to a small Pennsylvania town, far from Washington politics.
And through a series of e-mails that Jason writes to his mother, we learn of the formative role that SEAL training played in his coming-of-age. We see how he embraces the challenges of training – partly because it is a way, he thinks, to emulate his father, and to find a vocation in which “your skills intersect with your interests.”
He writes about the arduous physical and mental tests. He writes about the weapons he’s learned to use. He writes about jumping out of airplanes, and the principle of restraint in close-quarters fighting. Jason is one of the few to make it through the grueling program (the dropout rate tends to be around 70 percent) and once he has been deployed abroad, Sara observes, his letters become “less and less about what he was doing and more and more about what he remembered of being at home.”
Jason’s father is very much on his mind: He says he knew his dad “had his reasons for leaving,” but he wishes he had the chance to talk with him again. “There are so many questions I was never able to ask,” he writes. As Jason’s deployments with the team add up – when he is lost he is 27 – “his early romance for his profession,” Carpenter writes, “has shifted to an old, enduring love, respect and sense of duty.” He has also begun to think about his life’s second act: He is “ready to use his body for an hour a day, or maybe two, rather than 20, ready to stop lying about what he does, ready to start sleeping late, to fall in love.” He worries about making the transition to civilian life, worries about missing the structure, the adrenaline, the sense of purpose he’s had with the SEALs. This life, he thinks, “can become an addiction.”
In the end, “Eleven Days” transcends its flaws. Carpenter makes palpable the immensely complicated emotional arithmetic that binds this mother and son – Sara’s cherishing of her only son and her knowledge that she needs to let him find his own way in life; Jason’s worries about his mother’s worries, clashing up against his passionate embrace of a dangerous profession. In doing so Carpenter has written a novel that maps – much the way that Jayne Anne Phillips’ classic “Machine Dreams” and Bobbie Ann Mason’s “In Country” did – the fallout that war has not just on soldiers, who put their lives on the line, but also on their families, who wait anxiously back home.