Here's a picture to make a Canadian literary agent drool like Pavlov's dog: a young Canadian Forces officer, just returned from a year-long tour in southern Afghanistan with a collection of shockingly good short stories he composed in a fever of inspiration while struggling to survive the deadly games of the Kandahar "sandbox."
Newly determined to make literature his career, 29-year-old Captain Matt Lennox of the Queen's York Rangers is now enrolled in a graduate writing program at the University of Guelph, where he is refining his already considerable chops in preparation for a first novel.
He is tall, handsome, muscular and flinty. He is a publicist's dream. And there's little question that any hard-boiled tales of taking on the Taliban that he might care to produce in time for the Christmas shopping season would attract a big advance to be repaid by even bigger sales.
One small problem is that those stories don't yet exist. Worse, Lennox has a conscience. Still every inch the good soldier, he is barely able to talk about his war experience, let alone to write it up for popular consumption. Sitting in uniform in an empty cafeteria at CFB Downsview a year to the day after he left Afghanistan, as sharp and articulate as a Canadian officer can be, Lennox can only stammer in response to the obvious question about the missing opus.
"I have an idea in the back of my head for what I might want to express," he says after one false start and a long pause. "It's difficult to articulate. But I haven't yet answered the question as to whether or not I've earned the right."
"I've got to have more time to assess whether or not I've earned that right to speak for a number of others," Lennox adds soberly. "But that's not a question I'm going to answer today."
Although Lennox quickly found a publisher for the stories he did write in Kandahar - they were brought out by Oberon last year as Men of Salt, Men of Earth - none of them is set there. Eschewing explosive devices, real and literary, the author instead coolly dissects the disheartening lives of various misfits in small-town Ontario.
He is sticking to the same territory in his novel, which chronicles the life of a man who returns to just such a place - not unlike Lennox's hometown of Orillia - after a long sentence in federal prison.
Then there is all that material Lennox gathered while working odd jobs before joining the Canadian Forces full time - especially the notebooks he filled while collecting garbage for 1-800-GOT-JUNK. "There was a lot of very rich material for a writer in that job," he says with relish. "I don't know if it's on the plate next, but it's something I plan to revisit."
So is Afghanistan - just not yet. "The whole experience was so alien, so foreign," he says. "I can't do it justice trying to describe it, which I think is why I like to write. ...
"I feel that a disclaimer is necessary," he adds. "I had a pretty quiet tour. I was working in the operations centre for 90 per cent of it, and a lot of that was like being in jail, except that all the guns pointed out, not in."
For Lennox, who had dabbled before but never saw himself as a writer, the life-changer turned out to be a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver that he found in a cardboard carton at the Kandahar base, jumbled together with romances and thrillers in an overlooked care package.
"I had heard of Raymond Carver, but had never read him," Lennox says. "So I took it with me and read it in a couple of days. After that, I just started writing like a fiend. ...
"I was working the night shift in the operations centre at the time," he adds, "and between 11 at night and 5 in the morning, it was dead quiet. You could either whack your head on the desk or search for the end of the Internet. Or write stories. That's what I was doing."
Both jobs followed him home. Now a Class B reservist, Lennox is working full-time as head of the operations centre at Downsview while he commutes to Guelph to study writing and establish his first links to literary life. He is "in transition," keen to embrace a new career but not quite ready to throw off the good one he already has.
In the meantime, he waits for permission to write what he knows, but can't yet face: the "really bad, evil shit" of war, the perverse human delight in death and destruction. "I think it exists in all of us," he says. "I suppose if there's anything I'm trying to come to terms with, it would be that."
A Canadian journey to the heart of darkness.
"It's there," Lennox confirms, crunching a Mars bar wrapper with excessive force. "It's easy to get wrong, and it's easy to cheapen. And I hope I never do that."