Hunkered Down In This War

Fobbit, by David Abrams


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What a difference a few decades makes, but I’ll come to that in a bit. David Abrams’ book, Fobbit, is perhaps the most comprehensive look yet, through the lens of fiction, at the U.S. involvement in Iraq. Its cover blurbs want us to compare it to Heller’s Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. For my money, the comparisons are apt, but with some significant differences. First, a bit about the book.

Fobbits are the so-called public affairs personnel of the U.S. Army, the Pentagon’s spin doctors, who attempt daily to put a freshly-scrubbed face on the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq, on the mounting deaths of soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and insurgent/terrorists. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, the various warring sects of that country, not least among them the Sunni and Shi’a religious factions, are at one another’s throats – as they’ve been for centuries – and the U.S. and its allies are caught in their crossfire, constantly being subjected to IEDs (hidden explosives) and other maiming and killing situations. Of course, the soldiers on the firing line hold the Fobbits in high disdain for their inherent lack of risk.

Abrams, who served as a Fobbit in 2005, gives us an often blurred cast of characters, some Fobbits, some on-the-line soldiers, and some commanding officers who are trying to make strategic sense of the stacked deck they’re playing from. Some characters rise and fall quickly. Others, such as Fobbits Eustace Harkleroad and Chance Gooding and soldiers Abe Shrinkle and Vic Duret, reveal the schizophrenic nature of the war. Eventually, Gooding serves as the war’s chronicler, a counterpoint to Harkleroad’s spin doctoring – even to the extreme of Harkleroad spinning e-mails to his mom. And Shrinkle, a hyper-patriotic officer, who proves too inept to hold down such a role, proves the book’s eventual catalyst.

The author does an excellent job of depicting the war, both in his narrative and his characterizations, all in excellently wrought prose. Perhaps he tried to do too much here, but that temptation is always great when such a war is seen from a perspective still too close to the author’s war experience. And that brings me back to my opening paragraph here, and the distance of a few decades.

None among his characters is a parallel to Catch-22’s Yossarian or Slaughterhouse Five’s Billy Pilgrim. These earlier novels’ primary characters were openly sensitive to the violence, chaos, and insanity of war, sometimes reacting in passive aggressive fashion a la M*A*S*H’s Corporal Klinger, sometimes as desperately moral anarchists, such as that of the movie/TV show’s Hawkeye Pierce.

In Abrams’ war, there are no draftees, only volunteers, and one senses (quickly) that the public at home is paying little attention to this overlong conflict. No one openly challenges the war’s ethics, nor the Fobbits’ spin. It’s a story of playing it as safe as one can in such dangerous conditions, militarily, morally, and emotionally. As close as they come to moral outrage is sneering at these overweight, air-condition-protected “knights of the keyboard.” And only two, Shrinkle and Gooding, eventually display resistance and moral qualms. But by then it’s too late for their metamorphoses to matter much in this book.

Still, Abrams does pitch the war in powerful terms, terms the U.S. and its European allies may not reconcile for many years to come.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars.





Books of the Year 2012: The Top 5 and the Runners Up/The Atlantic

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Benjamin Schwartz, The Atlantic‘s literary editor, weighs in with his picks for the best books of 2012. Such lists are always arguable, and I have others I’d put in such a list. How about you?

Visit Bob’s web site here, and his FB Fan Page here.

Good News Coming!

Due to a serendipitous happening, I’m to be interviewed tomorrow on Phil Naessens’ internet radio show. The subject? He found and read my novel, A Place of Belonging, liked it, and we’ll talk about that during the interview.

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The show – and the interview – which airs predominantly in New York City, I believe, will be available December 4th. And he’ll be posting a review of the book as well. I’ll let you know more after the interview itself.

Visit Bob’s web site here, and his FB Fan Page here.

Into The Pit, Darkly – Three Mini Reviews

After a couple of extraordinarily social evenings, the Missus and I settled in Saturday night to watch a movie…then another…then another, an event we’ve never accommodated before. At some point we had to reach for the eyewash, popcorn, and chips, and by one a.m., our movie gloom was over (be sure to read the coda following the reviews).

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The first one was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Emma Watson and Daniel Ratcliffe as Hermione and Harry respectively, ferreting some unholy creatures from the gloom, all to a promising ending. The story was as well plotted as the book (says Missus), and the special effects spectacular.

Then, flipping through the movie channels, we came on The Ides of March, a movie about a popular but mildly corrupt governor running for President, and his handler, played by Ryan Gosling. It was Clooney’s usual ominously unsettling storyline. The story was tense, taut, and in the end,  powerful.

And finally, since the Missus had read the book, we decided to forge on and watch The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I hadn’t read it, so I wasn’t braced for the violent sex and the violent tortures and murders. What kept me writhing in my recliner to movie’s end was the well orchestrated plot a la Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, and the increasing suspense, as clues were dispensed click by click like Pez candies.

Now I have to wonder at the attraction to such dark and unsettling stories, in which there are only antiheroes, really. I know we in the first shudderings of a postmodern world like to crack open the sociological egg to see what rottenness lies within, but that’s only part of it. I think we attach ourselves to these stories to see what stench and depravity tugs at our own innards. Thus we allow books and cinema to perform catharsis and, hopefully, art’s healing.

Visit Bob’s NEW web site here, and his FB Fan Page here.

My Tech Friend (This Isn’t Meant To Be a Commercial)

I think I’m up on techie things, but I’m sometimes a little slow to see their complete worth. My four year-old iPod touch had been worn out by use and abuse, and I recently bought a new one, the 5G version.

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I had bought the old one principally to listen to music (I had digitized all my vinyl and cassette tapes, and had them stored in my iTunes library, along with other iTunes bits and pieces I’d bought, and was happy). Then I discovered podcasts, and all but quit listening to my tunes during my daily walks. Soon, though, videos began accompanying iTunes downloads, and I started watching them on that wee screen. So it wasn’t a grand leap to “Mini-Me” movies.

I couldn’t send e-mails with the old iPod – some flaw in the works, I suppose – so that was limiting, but I began checking in with my Facebook pals, and found myself carrying on conversations with friends there during family TV time – much to the consternation of my wife.

Then came the 5G.

Now, I converse via e-mail without flaw (except for my fumbling typing). Siri, the voice-activated helper,  saves me many touches when I want to know a sports score, or when wife Becca poses some trivia-type question concerning something we’re watching on TV. One easy swipe, and I can take a picture of something or someone (remember those post-photo op moments when you mumbled “Gee, I wish I’d taken a picture of that.”?).

This new, enhanced techie relationship I have with the iPod Touch is a little creepy when you think about it – I mean, what’s next, a robot butler? Still, I put those thoughts aside and increasingly enjoy its assistance.

Hmm. Maybe an iPhone the next time around?

Visit Bob’s NEW website here, and his FB Fan Page here.

Writer’s Therapy

I’ve been working for a month on what’s turned into a very long (some 7500 words) “short” story. That’s been good; it’s allowed my first-person narrator’s mind to wander and thus to complicate the story. The challenge there was to allow a reader into his river of connected thoughts (bouncing back and forth in time) but in a way that wouldn’t confuse the reader.

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Now, as I let this story simmer for a couple of weeks, I’m writing another, much shorter story – some 1500-2000 words – a form of writer’s therapy, I think. This provides another challenge, though: for a natural long-form writer such as me, I have to reel my story-telling in, tell a complete story, but focus it on a very stripped down series of events, with much implied, and tell it structurally in as few words as possible.

Visit Bob’s website here, and his FB Fan Page here.