Though literary nonfiction takes its cues from literary fiction, William Faulkner would struggle to invent a more extreme character than his (possibly inadvertent) namesake Gary Faulkner, the subject of “An Army of One,” our latest Notable Narrative. The latter Faulkner believes that it is his fate to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, capturing him through a dramatically timed earthquake. When off-mission, he is a contractor, well known for his skill with tile countertops, but he routinely schemes to make his way into the mountains of Pakistan in search of his prey. He has made 11 attempts thus far – unbelievably spectacular failures – the last of which got him arrested and deported. And yet he is undaunted.
Such rich material could both thrill and stymie the most adventurous reporter. Do you play Faulkner as an apocalyptic zealot, a patriotic hero, or a deeply disturbed man? GQ staff writer Chris Heath resolves the conundrum by casting him as all of the above and more. He comes clean with the reader by stepping out of the story to discuss his strategy directly (“If I wanted to make him seem unlikable…”).
This approach would backfire if it came across an ounce more judgmental, or if his article weren’t so funny. Heath’s comic timing particularly shines when he doles out his material in little firecrackers, wonderfully separated to let readers enjoy each explosion (Faulkner at one point decides “he should approach bin Laden in a new way – by hang glider”).
Heath ultimately strips his story of most of its context, including little about the war on terror or bin Laden himself, except to note that Faulkner hopes to make personal use of bin Laden’s dialysis machine after he captures him. Instead, Heath tells a story about one person of not much account in the world searching for a meaningful life. While Faulkner’s actions have surely not aided impressions regarding Americans abroad, and may even have cost lives (depending on whether or not you believe the hunter’s accounts of his exploits), it would be hard to say that Faulkner has not dreamed big of making a difference, or that he has not risked everything in the pursuit of that dream.