John Renehan’s first novel is a triumph of a hybrid. The Valley (Penguin) is a detective story embedded in a war novel, like a crime beat reporter stuck in a fierce military surge. Renehan, an Iraq war veteran who was born in Massachusetts but grew up here attending Dos Pueblos (and working at this paper in the mid-1990s) said that even his publisher wasn’t sure how to market it. “I think they wanted to model it after The Matterhorn,” he said, referring to the critically-acclaimed Vietnam novel by Karl Marlantes, initially an independently published book picked up Atlantic Monthly Press. Compare the cover art of both novels, and you’ll see the connection. “But I just got to see the paperback cover, and it really looks like they are going for the detective-fiction audience.”
Renehan is pleased either way. He ought to be; the book tips between genres neatly. In it, a Lieutenant named Black seems ready to resign his post on an Afghanistan base that’s far enough from the fighting to sport fine amenities like a luxury cafeteria and chain coffee shops. The comfort zone is shattered when Black gets randomly selected to conduct an army investigation on the frontlines, on a base where every known evil in the world, from drug dealers to Taliban, bears down. The book has a sense of ominous danger, action, and an extremely complicated mystery to solve. “Sometimes at readings, people ask me questions about the book,” he said. “It all works out, I can assure you.” He didn’t want to hand the solution to his readers, and his editor agreed and disagreed. “Some parts he wanted me to expand,” he said, referring to a seemingly hopeless battle near the end, “but in the end, he wanted me to cut those conversations you get in every mystery where the truth is laid out.” They wanted the army guys to talk like army guys.
Don’t think Renehan is mean. In fact, last time we saw him, 15 years ago, he was the voice of sanity in our production department poised between an immovable copy chief and an irresistible managing editor. Renehan left for law school at Berkeley, graduated, and went to work for the city of New York. “There is a tradition of service in my family,” said Renehan. The clarion call of post-9/11 warfare got him to enlist, and he ended up a field commander in Iraq. After the army came a family, and more lawyering near Washington, D.C. Kids made it hard for Renehan to continue reading serious history and political science books, he told a New York television host last spring. “I started reading page-turners,” he said. Then he started writing.
Renehan now works for the Defense Department (“A lot like that movie Office Space,” he laughed) and had written an Iraq war memoir that his agent was unable to sell. Whiling away the time, he wrote his page-turner. “It took about a year thinking about it and another to write,” he said. After that, things got easy. The new book sold immediately. Renehan, whose dad taught classics at UCSB, comes home Thursday, August 20, to sign his book at Chaucer’s Books.
Some technical aspects of the book had to be vetted by the Defense Department, but Renehan’s real concern was getting the people in the army right. “They tend to get portrayed just one way,” he said. He wanted to avoid army clichés. “There is a whole range of people in combat,” he said. What we want are movies and books that take us realistically into places we can’t — or shouldn’t — visit. The Valley takes us safely into war. But the best part is how addictive a read it is. That came, Renehan says, from his feeling guilty for writing a book while his wife held down the family. He decided to continue, he said, because she liked the first chapters of the book and wanted to know what happened next. “So that put pressure on me. I had to crank out the chapters and keep her hooked,” he said. That was Renehan’s real triumph.