C.J. Chivers (Rhymes With Shivers) Is One Helluva Writer

On a beautiful sun-dappled afternoon last May, I sat on a bench in Square Henri Galli, a Paris pocket park across the Seine from Île Saint Louis, and while des enfants frolicked about, read a New York Magazine article that had been sitting in my get-to pile for six months.

It was a piece by the redoubtable C.J. Chivers, a journalist I’ve mentioned numerous times as one of the few I would read anything by.

The Fighter

The Marine Corps taught Sam Siatta how to shoot. The war in Afghanistan taught him how to kill. Nobody taught him how to come home.

Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze, so staggeringly drunk that he would later say he retained no memory of the crime he was beginning to commit.

It was a few minutes after 2 a.m. on April 13, 2014. Siatta had just forced his way into a single-story home in Normal, Ill., a college town on the prairie about 130 miles southwest of Chicago. A Marine Corps veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was a 24-year-old freshman studying on the G.I. Bill at the university nearby, Illinois State. He had a record of valor in infantry combat and no criminal past. He also had no clear reason to have entered someone else’s home, no motive that prosecutors would be able to point to at trial — no intention to rob, no indication that he knew or had even seen before any of the three young female teaching students who lived inside, or the boyfriends who were with two of them.

The piece goes on to narrate not only the gory details of that night, but also Sam Siatta’s compelling journey from a small town in Illinois to Afghanistan as a sharpshooter (whose diary entries are just heart wrenching) and eventually back to Normal (but nowhere near normal) – an arc that is inextricably entwined with the journey of Ashley Volk, the childhood sweetheart Sam would alternately cling to and flee from.

As Chivers chronicles, Sam is convicted, sentenced to prison, and almost miraculously granted early release (thanks mostly to Chivers poking around the way good journalists do), at which point Sam improbably decides to embark on a career as an amateur mixed-martial-arts fighter, despite lacking full control of his left arm, which was damaged in that fateful home invasion.

Chivers ends his story with this:

I asked him whether entering the ring with one good arm to exchange blows with a trained fighter carried more risks than he might want, especially considering the delicate platinum coils in his neck that could be dislodged. He seemed tired of the question. It was the type of discouragement he had heard since telling friends he was enlisting in the Marines. “If my dream was to be a lawyer or doctor, something that was socially acceptable, then everybody would be happy,” he said. “But when I tell people I want to be a fighter, they are like, ‘Ooh, you’re going to fuck yourself.’ ”

People warn him that he is going to get hurt, he said, and “I’m like, ‘Well, it is fighting, so that’s almost a definite.’ ” He hoped to earn enough money to pay the hospital bills. Hands throbbing, face blank, his left-side targeting system not quite right, Sam Siatta hit the bag.

It’s a staggering piece of writing that left me sitting there stunned in Square Henri Galli.

Then, three days ago Chivers and Sam and Ashley were back, this time on Page One of the  Sunday Styles section.



A word about Ashley:

Let it be known that Ashley Volk had loved Sam Siatta since elementary school, the age of True Love Always in sidewalk chalk. She loved him before he joined the Marines and went to war, before he descended into depression and alcoholism upon his return, before he was convicted on a felony charge for a crime he did not remember through a blackout fog.

And now that he was out, she carried him.

“He was in PTSD counseling, trying to regain his confidence and calm,” Chivers writes. “With a job tending bar three or four nights a week until 4 a.m. and Saturday until 5, she brought home her tips, amassing enough in small bills each month to keep a roof above their heads and food in the fridge.”

Until suddenly came Sam Siatta’s second miracle, in the form of Illinois Appellate Court Justice Terrence J. Lavin, who had 1) lost a nephew in the Afghan war and 2) read Chivers’ Times Magazine piece. The judge was sufficiently moved to contact Sam and ask him how he was.

Justice Lavin invited the couple to his chambers. When they sat to talk Mr. Siatta told him that he had been struggling to find work and his disability pension had stopped. He had almost no income and no good plan.

“I’m on a streak of bad luck,” he said.

“Well that’s about to change,” the judge said.

He asked Mr. Siatta what he needed.

A job, Mr. Siatta said.

Justice Lavin had worked in a steel mill as a young man. He had been elected to the bench with labor support. He knew some people in Chicago.

“How about we get you into a union?” he said.

And so he did.

And not long after, Justice Lavin married Sam and Ashley.

C.J. Chivers would likely deny this, but in many ways he made that happy ending happen.

A beautiful story, beautifully told.

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