Several friends on Twitter referred to Braxton McCoy and his book “The Glass Factory” in extremely favorable terms. For the most part, these friends served in the military, unlike me. At my late stage in life, I often regret not at least attempting martial service, but I fully realize that I was overwhelmed by the delusion that I was an athlete. Despite not having served, throughout my lifetime I have attempted to learn about and evaluate large and fundamental questions by absorbing the writings and teachings of military persons throughout history. The literature ranges from historical to personal reflection to fiction to poetry. Each of these genres provide an insight into the human condition under circumstances of what I describe as its rawest crucible. War, genocide, conflict, revolution, post-revolution, and the arenas produced by violence typically strip away platitudes and fantasy leaving the essence of what it means to be a human being. Those referring to Mr. McCoy’s book expressed sentiment that indicated it was a book worthy of the others written about violence, noble or not, and its aftermath.
I ordered The Glass Factory and read it over the course of about three days. The biography stunned me in a good way on several levels. First, as a story, Mr. McCoy tells his own tale with a genuine and purposeful arc. I was genuinely surprised that out of 21 Chapters and an Afterword, McCoy only devotes two chapters to his own service and the incidents that led to his severe injuries. Essentially, after the second chapter of the book he devotes his writing to taking the reader through treatment, his process of recovery, and his status and lessons as of the completion of his book. I do not know the decorum in writing review of literature in terms of revealing the “plot,” but suffice it to say the story itself makes Herculean efforts at honesty, it provides details of both internal and external struggles, and presents advice to the reader in an accessible form buttressed by his real-life struggles and experiences. Another part of the book that surprised me perhaps even more was McCoy’s references to authors and thinkers that influenced me and continue to influence me in terms of my thought process and my view of life. The book pays direct homage to Dr. Jordan Peterson, quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, William Tecumseh Sherman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Cormac McCarthy, among others I have read in my journey of learning. I read The Glass Factory and wove these thinkers, with Mr. McCoy leading, throughout the story. I have debated all of them internally time and again, and McCoy’s story added another tapestry within which to consider these great minds.
However, his intimate and honest portrayal of his life as a young man after injuries that I cannot even fathom spurred an off-the-cuff reaction in me. After finishing the book, I sent McCoy a tweet praising his book and adding that it reminded me of Charles Portis’ book “True Grit.” He thanked me and his reply indicated he would read True Grit. This brief interaction, however, stuck with me. My comparison between The Glass Factory and True Grit occurred with very little conscious analysis and was delivered rather spontaneously. After the interaction, I genuinely started to think about whether or not the comparison between a beloved book of fiction and a raw and honest testament of a real soldier was fair and accurate.
True Grit is one of my favorite books, and a book that I believe should be read by every 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy. The characters of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn are kindred spirits, both operating under their own set of rules (which is perhaps why not one, but two exceedingly good movies were made from the same book). Mattie Ross is an extremely smart, direct, headstrong, religious, committed, brave, and honest young lady. Rooster Cogburn is similarly direct, headstrong, brave, physically injured (he lost an eye in the Civil War), clever, and forceful as a character. However, neither is without flaw. Mattie can be arrogant and suffers from occasional outbursts of hubris. Rooster drinks too much, is not a hundred percent honest, and, as the character admits, “can be a strutting bird.” Most importantly, both Ross and Cogburn fiercely love their independence and self-reliance, and speak with truth, irrespective of anyone else’s opinions. The two main characters reluctantly join forces to find the killer of Mattie Ross’ father. Although initially the two joined the pursuit with different intentions, they eventually meld into the same pursuit of justice. Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn also repeatedly express a love for their geographical place. Mattie Ross when introducing herself throughout the book almost universally adds 'from Dardanelle County' (Arkansas), and Rooster Cogburn repeatedly describes the importance of the West (though waning) to his very existence. Ross and Cogburn are both contradictory and complementary characters as written by Portis. Their attributes and flaws give them dimension and allow the reader to admire them when they are suffering through mistakes and struggles, as well as when they are overcoming and triumphing. True Grit is an adventure story, but more importantly, it is a quintessentially American parable on the importance of character in the end and regardless of flaws along the way, speaking truth regardless of discomfort caused by that truth, and pursuing a just cause or worthwhile mission.
How did I tie McCoy’s contemporary autobiographical diary to Portis’ fictional adventure story from the waning days of the old West? I reread The Glass Factory, this time in two days. As I reread his testament, I realized my initial expression to McCoy was not glib or off-the-cuff. His obvious love of the Rocky Mountains in the Utah area where he grew up and lives and its importance to his recovery and development parallels both Mattie Ross’ and Rooster Cogburn’s love of their physical “place” on earth. The love expressed in both stories is more than aesthetic. Braxton McCoy, Mattie Ross, and Rooster Cogburn tap into the current of their places in terms of where they are comfortable, challenged, and revived. This love of place is in no way trivial and is not limited to the United States in terms of its impact, but the literature of the United States more typically emphasizes the tie between who the character is and where the character finds their place. In contrast, as an example, Russian literature generally first focuses on the psychology and emotions of the characters. The place of the character is more of a vehicle or stage in which to act out the psychology and emotions.
However, in rereading The Glass Factory, the blend of the characteristics of Ross, Cogburn, and McCoy’s experiences became mutually supporting. McCoy’s near obsession with honesty, both as a goal of the book itself and as a recommendation for living one’s life as a result of his experiences, is also reflected in the characters of Ross and Cogburn. Although Rooster may spin a yarn or fudge his expenses, he, like Mattie Ross, speaks the truth to others with a frankness that is both refreshing and occasionally harsh. Throughout McCoy’s testament, he expresses an appreciation of those who speak the truth to him and seeks to emulate their frankness. Obviously, this forms part of the basis of his conclusions of what can be learned from his experiences, laden with pain and suffering. Another similarity that emerges is the concept of “mission.” McCoy developed a mission through his recovery, influenced by his experience at Arlington Cemetery, his reading, and, although I do not believe he would express this himself, his will. He emphasizes the need to develop and pursue worthwhile missions, to sacrifice for your family and strangers alike. Cogburn and Ross, in pursuit of the murderer of Ross’ father, develop a mission that is worthwhile in a similar vein, and similarly pursue that mission through their own will. Ross seeks absolute justice for a wanton killing of a good man. Cogburn, although initially influenced by the reward, in the end risks much and acts with sheer bravery in pursuit of that same justice. At the end of The Glass Factory, McCoy disavows his previous hedonistic pursuits in favor of seeking and achieving a similar worthy, personal mission. In True Grit, although Mattie Ross represents the antithesis of hedonism, Rooster Cogburn puts down his bottle to both finish the mission and save Mattie Ross.
Another interesting parallel between McCoy’s reality of and the fiction of True Grit emerges in the realm of physical injury and pain. As noted above, Rooster Cogburn was wounded in the Civil War resulting in the loss of his eye and his iconic eyepatch. At the end of True Grit, Mattie Ross is permanently injured as a result of her participation in the mission. Both she and Rooster Cogburn literally carry the pain and the obvious injuries of their lives, but that pain and injury does not stop them or deter them from pursuing further missions in life, and the essence of who they are. Although McCoy’s injuries, both physical and mental, are far more extensive than those suffered by the fictional characters, part of his story is the acceptance of pain and suffering, and continuing to move forward on a worthwhile mission.
Finally, acceptance of responsibility for one’s own lot in life emerges in both The Glass Factory and True Grit. This acceptance of responsibility is not, in either case, ignoring that people suffer as a result of events beyond their control. Throughout True Grit, there are examples of errors, accidents, and just dumb luck that harm the characters or frustrate their pursuit. Blame may find its way into the dialogue of True Grit, in frankness as one would expect, in conjunction with these experiences. However, no character shirks or dismisses personal responsibility for either finding their way into the mess or figuring a way out of dangerous or bad circumstances. Mr. McCoy’s development through his autobiography and the examples he provides from his real life efforts, emphasizes this exact same theme, and the benefits of acceptance of personal responsibility.
There are other parallels, complements, and lessons that line up between McCoy’s frankly amazing guided tour of his real-life experiences, struggles, and triumphs and the story of True Grit (I know and admit that I have ignored the Texas Ranger LeBeouf, and swear it is not a result of the acting performance of Glen Campbell in the first movie, but rather a conscious effort to limit length.). Mattie Ross in seeking out a man to pursue justice for her father requires one characteristic, “a man with grit.” I suspect Charles Portis wrote her character to actually mean ‘a man with grit like me.’ Grit is where the most prominent overlap occurs between True Grit and The Glass Factory. His life story from his horrible injuries in Iraq (and I believe before that seminal event) to his tripartite recovery at the end of his book is inundated with grit. That grit is found in himself, his comrades in arms, his grandfather and family, and, most touchingly, in the young lady from his hometown who took care of his property when he went to the hospital. In American parlance, the attributes of mission, sacrifice for others, physical and mental health, bravery, honesty with self and others, self-reliance and independence, acceptance of personal responsibility, and pure human will vetted and expressed by Mr. McCoy can, I believe, be subsumed within the meaning of the word “grit.” When modified with the adjective “true,” the story of Mr. McCoy’s actual experiences and the story of Charles Portis combine into an experience of both American origin and universal application.
Why did I feel I needed to write this probably too long explanation of a comment to an author and too short literary analysis? I think of myself as a proselytizer for great stories and literature. I realize the tie between The Glass Factory and True Grit that I expressed to Mr. McCoy was not only an effort to praise his affidavit, but to promote another great story that, although fiction, lives in the same realm of his experiences. If you get a chance, when your child is on the precipice of puberty, give them True Grit to read. Then, when they are a little older but still going through the turbulence of being a teenager, give them The Glass Factory to read. There are lessons and comfort in both of the stories for a lifetime.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.