David Abrams knew a book was forming in his journal as he sat in an office near Baghdad recording the feel of dust, the contents of care packages and the dialog of an inept occupation force at work around him. His first novel, “Fobbit,” blends fiction and journalism, an apt reflection of literary influences combined with his experience in an Army public affairs team. His duty was to draft and redraft cautious press releases, and words are much on the mind of everyone in this book.
Casualty reports become the stuff of tedium on Forward Operating Base Triumph, and Abrams writes what he knows from an insulated workstation in Iraq where the war is edited for America. The bureaucracy of storytelling and the almost factory labor of producing official language for export reduce death to little more than rumor. We gain a rare gestalt perspective on the journey that news takes as we follow five main characters from the patrols outside the defensive perimeter to life inside with the “Fobbits.”
“As a Fobbit, Chance Gooding Jr. saw the war through a telescope, the bloody snarl of combat remained at a safe, sanitized distance from his air-conditioned cubicle. . . . He was in the war but he was not of the war.”
The novel’s structure incorporates inner monologues, diary entries, correspondence, press releases and conversations, each with their own particular voice and their own version of events. All Abrams’s characters try to shield their malaise and opinion from public discourse: The haunted battalion commander has visions and grinds his teeth; the disgraced captain hides in a false identity; the sergeant never gives voice to his disrespect for officers; and the head of Public Affairs lies to his mother in letters home while his team worries about saying anything substantive in press releases. Isolated in this fluorescent landscape of cubicles, everyone is trying to tell a story where no one gets hurt, as if they’re writing fables for children they’re determined not to frighten. Gooding is a detached spokesman interpreting events he never sees.
Abrams leads us with Gooding’s reading list — “Catch-22,” “Hard Times,” “Don Quixote” — but in the end this book is unlike any of these classic satires because it never really gives itself much fantastical distance from the war. This is a fictionalized transcription of an effort still close enough to find its own humor awkward, a conflict strange enough to allow military eccentrics to seem entirely familiar and infuriatingly human.
Though absurd, these Dickensian characters are all so skillfully wrought that we quickly accept their idiosyncrasies. The language alternates between comic ranting and serious description, especially in the division between Gooding’s inner voice and that of his diary, which contains some of the novel’s most undisguised personal fieldnotes from the author. We know Abrams is speaking to us when Gooding writes, “This time, Don Quixote is in my hands. I’m in the midst of highlighting a passage with a neon-yellow pen — Fictional tales are better and more enjoyable the nearer they approach the truth or the semblance of the truth.”
What’s most intriguing about this work is that, at its center, it is both a clever study in anxiety and an unsettling expose of how the military tells its truths. “Fobbit” traces how “the Army story” is crafted, the dead washed of their blood, words scrutinized, and success applied to disasters. “The Fobbits, watching from their sterile distance, struggled to make sense of it,” Abrams writes. “They tried to separate truth from fiction, rumor from confirmed reports.”
As the intersecting narratives rush toward the inevitable 2,000th American killed in Iraq, the book breaks into a run, and we are drawn to wonder who it will be. The press, drunk with selling tragedy, begs to be present for the big moment, and when it arrives, Public Affairs agonizes over how to rewrite the embarrassing story of this milestone casualty.
“Staff Sergeant Gooding’s hand was cupped over the receiver. ‘Sir? What should we say?’ Harkleroad struggled to shake off his anxiety. ‘Tell them.. . .’ He faltered, not for the first or the last time, at a loss for words. ‘Tell them. . . .’ ”
But “Fobbit” ends in surreality, a distant echo of Tim O’Brien’s Cacciato leaving his platoon in Vietnam and walking to Paris. Abrams, in the guise of Gooding, tries to flee the scene of his own story. The war continues, all but the dead still at work. We are left in Iraq, rightfully disturbed.
Busch served two combat tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps infantry officer and is the author of the memoir “Dust to Dust.”
By David Abrams
Black Cat. 372 pp. Paperback, $15.