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Good Fiction Imitates Reality

Unmistakable in its jolt, the vibe charged from his body like jagged electric shock waves alerting me that this prospective reader and customer needed much more than a book.

Standing near the entrance to the Barnes & Noble bookstore in San Luis Obispo, I had seen the young man’s immediate interest in the stacks of books arranged for the signing in several small piles on the table.

Of average height, lanky and handsome with neat hair and casual clothes, he looked like any typical nondescript All-American boy on any typical nondescript All-American street in our nation.

Good fiction imitates reality, I said as he approached the table, referencing both the deadly wild fires exploding in the northern and southern parts of the state as well as the recent gun violence three hours south along the coast in Thousand Oaks. The analogy had become part of my new sales pitch, my routine California rap that compared real-life infernos and the shooting rampage with visionary parallel scenes in my novel.

“Raging fires as we speak,” I said. “And a 28-year-old combat vet who served in Afghanistan who is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder – just like the character in my book.”

“I’ve been to war,” the young man said. “I’ve been shot at.”

He, too, looked about 28. We shook hands as he looked around for his girlfriend he later said was studying to be a therapist.

Almost mechanically offering his first and last name, he said he served in Jordan. The Islamic State group strength when he arrived was at 80 percent in the area where he served, he said. When he finished his tour, ISIS was down to about 20 percent, he said.

“We did a lot of killing,” he said.

His calm voice floated amid the bookstore clatter. With soft eyes scanning the room he said nobody there had any idea what he had gone through.

“You watch a man all day,” he said. “Then after he drops off his daughter at soccer practice you kill him.”

I politely asked how he was handling the stress.

“I’m heavily medicated,” he said. “And I self-medicate.”

“What substance?”

“Marijuana,” he said.

“I’m bipolar, too,” he said. “I’m hypersensitive to sound.”

He said he went off-base to get another opinion and eventually three doctors all offered the same diagnosis. Now he believed they were right.

I asked if he was talking with anyone about his issues, a counselor or people who had gone through what he had gone through. He said he participated in combat group therapy.

“Sounds like you’re doing everything you need to do,” I said. “You know what you’re experiencing and you’re doing something about it. That takes courage.”

Picking up a copy of the book and holding it to his chest, he said he wanted to look around the store before checking out.

“Come back and I’ll sign it for you,” I said.

When he walked away, Stephanie looked at me.

“Do you think the story will freak him out?”

 I wondered. My character with PTSD fights on and makes it through, so maybe he’ll take that as a sign of hope for himself, I said. Maybe not, though.

When he returned, he put the book back on the pile.

“I want to be honest with you,” he said. “I shouldn’t read this right now.”

“You’re right,” I said.

Stephanie nodded.

Now we tried to send out vibes that charged him with feelings of control, confidence and optimism. None of us expected any guarantee because no guarantee exists for anybody. He turned and walked away. I carefully watched as he stood in line with his arm around his friend’s waist and when he left the store he didn’t look back.

I hope this young warrior can one day turn away from his war.

I hope one day he can read my novel and feel strong enough to know he made it to the light and that continuing clarity might exist for him in the future. I hope we all can exorcise the demons that haunt us in despair and trauma, devils that can be faced and fire-breathing dragons that can be slain.

The pen is mightier than the sword.

But the sword can always kill you.