The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in David Abrams (2)

Wednesday
Aug022017

Brave Deeds by David Abrams

Published by Grove Press Black Cat on August 1, 2017

Brave Deeds is a flawed novel, but I liked it more than Fobbit, David Abrams’ previous literary effort. The plot follows six soldiers who steal a truck so they can attend the memorial service of a beloved Sergeant after being told that an unpopular lieutenant and the company commander will attend the service on their behalf so that the rest of the company can pull Quick Reaction Force duty. Thanks to a broken drive shaft and a forgotten radio, the six soldiers find themselves on foot in Baghdad without a map, hoping they can make their way to the Forward Operating Base without getting killed. Good luck with that.

Like all soldiers, the six have definite opinions about the stupidity of their superior officers. It is clear, however that the soldiers are not all that bright themselves. Nor do they distinguish themselves as representatives of the United States. Apart from stealing a Humvee (not smart) and abandoning the Humvee and the equipment it contains to whomever finds it (really not smart), a soldier named Fish clubs a civilian female with his rifle for no reason other than his psychopathic desire to kill and maim. I give Abrams credit for not shying away from the fact that some soldiers do not deserve to be thanked for their service, but I found little reason to care about these guys.

The story of the stroll is frequently interrupted to tell background stories about the individual soldiers or the dead sergeant, or to relate dreams or snippets of seemingly random thought. An unfortunate percentage of the interruptions come across as filler rather than purposeful contributions to the story. Some of the stories humanize the soldiers (one cheated on his wife while she was delivering his baby, one can’t stop thinking about male genitals that are not his own) but for the most part, the characters suffer from a lack of development.

Putting aside the interruptions, the plot is: soldiers who have no way to communicate (having stupidly left their radio in their abandoned Humvee) walk through Baghdad and things happen to them. They come across cellphones on their journey but apparently their training didn’t include how to make a phone call, or perhaps they don’t know the Army’s phone number. The first eventful thing occurs beyond the midway point, when an Iraqi offers to show the soldiers where is cousin is making bombs. After that, the story suffers from fewer interruptions and becomes progressively more interesting, if not particularly deep.

The attitudes reflected in Brave Deeds (“get out of our way or our big American boots will stomp you”) illustrate why the American occupation failed to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Again, I commend Abrams for not whitewashing that. The story has merit and the second half has some entertainment value, so I recommend Brave Deeds, but I can’t regard it as a significant contribution to the literature of war.

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Friday
Sep142012

Fobbit by David Abrams

Published by Grove Press/Black Cat on September 4, 2012 

All wars are fought, in significant part, on the propaganda front. As warfare has become more sophisticated, so has news management. Fobbit (the term infantry grunts apply to soldiers who never leave the relative safety of the Forward Operating Base in Baghdad) ably captures the military's attempt to manage the news during the American occupation of Iraq.

Assigned to Public Affairs, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. is doing his best to spin the war, a task made more difficult by officers like Capt. Abe Shrinkle, who blows up an American military fuel tanker with a hand grenade, killing a civilian Iraqi bystander in the process. As Gooding tries to prepare timely press releases, he is consistently beaten to the punch by CNN reporters who manage to compile a more accurate and complete story while Gooding's meddlesome superiors insert phrases like "enemies of democracy," debate the merits of referring to insurgents as "terrorists," and fret over the placement of favored adjectives like "heinous" and "brave." There is no bad news to report (at least according to the memos Gooding receives), a distortion of reality that challenges Gooding to recast disaster as triumph.

Despite its inevitable comparison to Catch-22, Fobbit isn't as split-a-gut funny, nor does it illustrate the folly of war as well as Heller's novel. David Abrams is a capable writer but his humor is often forced and he lacks Heller's literary flair. Abrams tips his hat to Heller when Gooding, reading Catch-22 on R&R, describes Heller's novel as "an owner's manual for this war." Shirkle, on the other hand, believes (in accordance with the views of his West Point professor) that Catch-22 is unpatriotic because Yossarian spends much of his time trying not to die for his country.

Unlike Catch-22, I sometimes felt that Fobbit consisted of a collection of characters in search of a plot. As a penetrating examination of the military's attempt to manage the news during the occupation of Iraq, Fobbit is a success. As cohesive comedy, Fobbit is far from perfect. The humor largely derives from two harmonic notes: the illusory attempt to control the news and the uniform incompetence of commissioned officers. When Abrams strays from those themes -- when, for instance, an officer sends self-aggrandizing emails to his mother -- the humor feels strained. While Abrams sets credible scenes within the Forward Operating Base and on occasional forays into Baghdad and Qatar, Fobbit rarely creates a visceral sense of men at war. Images of death and destruction lack power. Shirkle's transformation from flag-waving patriot to anti-military slacker is unconvincing. The novel's ending is more of a fade-out than a decisive conclusion, although I suppose that also describes the war itself.

Fobbit is an enjoyable novel despite its flaws. Abrams has a talent for spotting fools and for replicating their foolishness in his characters. He has a unique take on the war and on the public affairs writers charged with concealing the truth. When the novel focuses on propaganda management, it works well. Fobbit is worth reading for those golden moments.

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