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The Ice Beneath You

A Novel

About The Book

Just as The Things They Carried and Catch-22 spoke to their generations with truth and dark humor, this brilliant first novel defines the experience of war for its era.
Benjamin Jones, twenty-three, discharged after an army tour in Somalia, heads cross-country on a Greyhound, seeking refuge on the West Coast. He has left behind his best friend, Trevor, and Liz Ross, a female soldier with whom Jones has fallen in love. But Jones has also left behind a tragedy -- a horrible, split-second action made in Somalia -- that Trevor, Jones, and the army have implicitly agreed to forget.
Alone on the streets of San Francisco, and then north on the Washington coast, Jones finds that an uneducated ex-soldier is qualified only as a peep show fantasy object or as a hired hand to a bottom-feeding smuggler and pornographer. Recurring visions of his life as a soldier gradually reveal the full truth -- and agony -- of his experience, and a reunion with Liz and a violent confrontation with Trevor bring the young soldier's journey to a wrenching conclusion -- but one not without hope.
At equal turns tense, brutal, and poetic, The Ice Beneath You is a soldier's story for a time when there weren't supposed to be any more soldiers' stories.

Reading Group Guide

1. Benjamin Jones joins the U.S. Army at the end of the Gulf War. What was the motivation for this action? One life-altering event or a series of decisions? How does his original motivation match or contrast with his actual experiences as a soldier?
2. Jones briefly discusses what it is to be a soldier in a time of peace, in a generation that has never seen war up close. How do members of Jones's generation view war differently than members of the Vietnam generation? Compare the similarities between the return to the United States of soldiers who served in Vietnam and those in Somalia. Do you think the soldiers who served in Somalia would feel more of a kinship with Vietnam vets than with Gulf War vets?
3. Jones and Trevor Alphabet share a deep bond. What experiences strengthen that bond? Which threaten to tear it apart? At one point, Bauman explains that the soldiers tended to travel in packs of two. Discuss this with regard to Jones's and Trevor's relationship to the buck sergeants, Bob and Sid.
4. The narrative splices together Jones's pre- and post-army life in the United States and his life as a soldier overseas. How does this technique change your sense of the story's development? How would a straight chronological telling have shaped the book's themes differently?
5. Discuss the novel's central incident onboard the Mike Boat in Jiliri. How did it change the relationship between Trevor and Jones? How does Bauman portray the military's official treatment of the incident? Did you find the troops' reaction to be reasonable or ethical? Are such horrific accidents a necessary by-product of war, and if so, are they understandable under any circumstances?
6. It is rare that Jones and his fellow troops are directly engaged in fighting. How does this change the character of violence in the few scenes where violence does erupt? Do you think the characters would have reacted differently if direct combat was more prevalent? If so, how?
7. What does Jones see in Drill Sergeant Rose -- a demon, a savior, or both? How do Jones's ideas about him change? What do these changes say about Jones's development as a character? Compare Rose's place in Jones's mind as a perfect soldier to the real-world realities of the confused, scared Lieutenant Klover, or the spit-shined, incompetent Sergeant Cowens. Do you think Jones starts equating his friend Trevor with Rose as a security measure? Is this trust dangerous?
8. In their own ways, Jones and Trevor are both disciplined, committed soldiers, who live to "outsoldier anything that moves." Why, then, on one specific night, did they break their own code and allow themselves to fall asleep? Was this true dereliction of duty, or simply sheer exhaustion combined with false comfort? Does it matter? How do they view their own failings?
9. Is Jones's degrading experience in San Francisco important? Is it coincidence and largely a product of time, place, and economics, or is it a self-imposed punishment? What does he mean when he says "I have a need to be uncomfortable for a long period of time"?
10. In George's house in Huley, Washington, Jones plans a confrontation that never happens. Did he want to use the gun simply to perform his "rescue," or did he truly want to injure or kill the two men? Compare this to Jones's second major break with his soldiers' code, when he abandoned Sergeant Cowens to pull a Somali woman to safety.
11. What obstacles does Jones face in his love for Liz? His own personality? The fact that they both serve in the military? Does she play a role in his decision to stay overseas a few extra days, rather than going home? If they had met in civilian life, do you think the same spark would have existed between them?
12. The U.S. media's coverage of the military comes into play several times through the course of the book. How does the media's coverage of the deployment affect the characters? Why? As the situation gets more dangerous, the soldiers feel that "no one knows we're here." Do they blame the media for this? How does the nature of "peacekeeping," as opposed to traditional forms of warfare, play a role in the story's development?
13. Which scene most powerfully reinforced your preconceptions about military life? Which scene most effectively challenged those preconceptions? Why?
14. Compare and contrast this book -- its story, characters, and lessons -- to previous novels about war. How does it differ from the ironic, dark humor of Catch-22, or the brutally antiwar sentiments of All Quiet on the Western Front? How is it similar? In what ways does Jones stand as a witness to the larger events around him, like Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms? In what ways does this book seem wholly unique among works of war fiction?

About The Author

Photo Credit: Kristina Bauman

Christian Bauman has worked as a touring musician, cook, painter, clerk, laborer, and editor. He served four years as a soldier in the US Army Waterborne, including tours of duty in Somalia and Haiti. He lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (October 2, 2002)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743227841

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Raves and Reviews

Hubert Selby, Jr. author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream Beautifully crafted, structured, and simple...It is a pleasure to read the work of a real writer. Thank you Mr. Bauman.

Richard Wertime author of Citadel on the Mountain A remarkable debut...a tense, razor-edged, powerful effort...This is a book that will hold you.

Don De Grazia author of American Skin An important book -- a profound meditation on the stark realities of the American male experience. The truths of soldiering are brilliantly examined here from angles previously unexplored, but this is not so much a war novel as it is an exploration of the human heart. The writing is beautiful and deft, and displays an almost religious devotion to unwavering honesty.

Scott Anderson author of Triage and The Man Who Tried to Save the World Bauman renders the true spirit of men at war -- not just the frustrations and fear that come with operating over a dangerous landscape but also the deep bonds that tie men and women together through such experiences. With both humor and compassion, he captures well the deeper wounds that such places can inflict.

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