March 11, 2013


By Will Mackin
~3500 words

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan discovers the unexpected benefits of Dutch licorice.

The unnamed first-person narrator is an artillery operator in a unit that receives a new Howitzer liaison: the person charged with plotting the angle of the guns to account for external factors such as wind speed. Levi is from the Netherlands, and his mother sends care packages filled with Dutch candies including a licorice called Kattekoppen. The candies are so vile that no one wants to eat them, but on a search-and-recover mission the narrator engulfs them to mask the smell of rotting flesh.

The strength of the story lies in its attention to detail. The author has an impressive command of military jargon (I would not be surprised to learn that he is a soldier) and a talent for describing the starkness of the setting:
We set out from the dog cages under a full moon, which seemed to cast X-rays rather than light. Thus the dogs' ribs were exposed, as was the darkness below the ice on our steep climb uphill. The steel barrels of the howitzer guns were visible as shadows, and the plywood door of the howitzer camp was illuminated as if it were bone.
The story's weakness is character. The first-person narrator is so unassuming as to be almost secondary. The main character would appear to be Levi, but his primary role seems to be introducing the Kattekoppen. When he makes serious observations—as in his expression of concern over his newborn son—the import is undermined by the narrator's insistence on making fun of his accent:
"It is strange," Levi said. "I have never much worried, but sefferal times a night now I wake up afraid the boy is dead. And I sneak into his room and, like this"—he wet an index finger and held it under his nose—"I check his breeding."
Despite the author's excellent command of military vocabulary and eye to detail, the weak voice of "Kattekoppen" leads to a flatness of language that often feels more like narrative nonfiction or embedded journalism. The symbolism related to Bruegel's paintings (pictured on the postage stamps from the Netherlands) is also a bit overplayed. I much prefer the absurdity of the Kattekoppen image, on which this appropriately titled story squeaks by with a pass.


Reader poll: I found "Kattekoppen" to be ___.


  1. The narrator is not an artillery operator. He's a member of Seal Team Six.

    The author is indeed the real deal who is writing from direct experience.

    I find the fact that you cite the weakness of the narrator as a shortcoming quite interesting. I was so lost in the visuals that I failed to notice. My reading of this will likely be different than that of most readers as I've been there, but in defense of Will's emphasis on visual descriptions as opposed to character- my memories of Afghanistan are centered on things external to any sense of self. Everything that's important- your friends, and the guys that aren't, are external.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I should have clarified that I was speculating about the narrator's assignment, which the story forces us to do because it doesn't specify (and I think that's a good decision, but then it shouldn't be a surprise if we speculate incorrectly).

      We all have our preferences. The best we can do is be honest and transparent about them. For me, good literary fiction is all about character (that's what sets it apart from pulp fiction, which is about plot). No matter how great the descriptions—and Mackin's are extraordinary—if it's not clear why they are important to the characters, then the impact is undermined. For examples of war stories that I think do a great job with character, see my critiques of "Means of Suppressing Demonstrations" and "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy." Beyond The New Yorker, I would point to David Bellavia's House to House (about the Battle of Fallujah).

      Thanks again for your comment. If you know Will Mackin personally—and something tells me you do—please tell him I look forward to reading more of his work. Is a novel or memoir in the offing? I'm sure it would be scooped up quickly.