I’m going to compare Dean Barrett with Stephen King.
Both authors wrote may have made their contribution to American literature relatively early-on in their careers. In both cases, their greatest work, in this sense, is unappreciated by many people.
Stephen King’s finest work is clearly The Tommyknockers, a story that is the definition of horror: change. Decline. Degeneration. More sad than scary. Losing oneself while still being awake. King’s trick in The Tommyknockers is that the highly sympathetic and normal protagonist, Bobbi Anderson is not a rambling buffoon. Rather, Bobbi, like most people with mental illnesses, is a generally rational person who is making decisions that, day by day, are simply different than decisions she would have made before. Decisions that are hurtful to herself and those around her. Decisions that she sees differently. This lesson (which is clumsily hammed by Pirsig in the otherwise fine Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) is far more effectively taught by King.
Dean Barrett’s best work is probably Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior. Barret’s trick is that the colors he uses to paint the tragedy of war. While cliche and generally ho-hum works like All Quiet on the Western Front paint war as black and black, and thus show nothing. Memoirs instead paint a gorgeous picture of a beautiful land and shows how the dark black and red and war reach even there. If war All Quiet is Saw, a victim hacked to pieces, war Memoirs is closer to Ayn Rand method of describing the grotesque: adding a single blemish to a great beauty.
As great as Tommyknockers was, though, King’s practice writing pays off. He was able to review much the same ground in Under the Dome, and writing is much better. To say there is nothing new in Dome is besides the point: Dome is the novel King has been practicing writing for decades. Dome is where it all comes together. Dome is the essence of all previous ideas, done better than ever before.
The same should be said about Permanent Damage. It is not as shocking as Memoirs, because it is not as new. But it is those stories done right. There is only one battle in the entire book, and it is disposed of in a couple of pages right away (you can even read it online). The terrible thing about war is what it does to characters you want like, smart and hard-working individuals who want the best for themselves, their friends, and their families.
All creativity comes from constraints. King works within the rural/horror genre and is the better for it. Barrett seems most comfortable within the exotic/mystery, and likewise focuses that genre’s light to create his rainbow of colors.
Those expecting typical milfiction fair (such as the very well reviewed Senator’s Son) should look elsewhere. If war was only fought by the introspective and the philosophical we might celebrate it as a particularly vicious form of Socratic learning. Those who think of the sword most generally write of it, but those who have lived by the sword who die by it.