Partway through “One Hundred and One Nights,” an American-educated Iraqi doctor reduced to selling mobile phone cards finds himself dreaming about the meaning of war. Although he’s asleep, he has the sense that his insights may be close to genius: “Nothing is rhinoceros big and quicksandy and compelling, as the newspapers will have you believe,” he thinks. “War is not big speeches and credos. It is man and man and woman and woman and child, oblivious to everything except the basics of joy and hunger and thirst and inquiry.”
Iraq war veteran Benjamin Buchholz has written a seductive, compelling first novel that depicts war as intimate and subtle. He captures the distant rumbling of a Humvee, the dappled shadow left by a passing soldier and the ordinary dramas of sibling rivalry and unrequited love. War is no more or less meaningful than those details, but it increases the stakes, Buchholz proposes. And in war, us-against-them is a vast oversimplification. The insurgent is likely to be motivated by concerns more complex and murky than mere jihad.
Take the phone-card salesman, the story’s protagonist. Baghdad-born, Chicago-educated and newly arrived in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan, he introduces himself as Abu Saheeh, or Father Truth, an ironic pseudonym for a man whose harrowing past has led to a life dense with lies. While selling mobile phones and satellite dishes, Abu Saheeh spends his days monitoring the movements of the American military convoys that pass on the six-lane highway skirting Safwan, en route between Kuwait and Basra.
He also, it turns out, knows how to take apart and reassemble a jack-in-the-box toy as if it were a bomb. And he brings a scientific mind to the timing of U.S. military convoys. He determines that it takes American soldiers 38 seconds to emerge from their Humvees to inspect a suspicious object on the road.
But Abu Saheeh is not an insurgent. His appearance in Safwan is as complex as his devastating history, which he relives each night while he drinks himself to sleep and which is revealed layer by layer in sections that alternate with the present-day story. It seems for a moment that he might be able to leave violence behind and start over in Safwan, where he befriends a blue-eyed street urchin named Layla.
Layla, though, inadvertently threatens to drag him back into his past. With her talk of Chicago, American pop culture and snow, and with a length of yarn adorned with bird bones and dollhouse keys that she wears around her left ankle, she both enchants and disturbs him. He begins to wonder: Is she real? Is she a figment of his imagination?
This novel carries a strong sense of place and time that comes from personal familiarity. As part of a Wisconsin National Guard unit, Buchholz served from 2005 to 2006 as a civil affairs officer in Safwan and worked closely with Iraqi civilians. From that experience, he wrote a nonfiction book called “Private Soldiers.” In considering Safwan from the viewpoint of the Iraqis, Buchholz’s novel draws readers deeply into the suffering that has colored the country’s recent history. As the story progresses, pressure grows on Abu Saheeh from three sources: a naive-appearing U.S. lieutenant who seeks to adopt Layla, the circumstances surrounding the death of a young man doused with acid, and his powerful benefactor.
Eventually, shadows of his past become intertwined with his present. When he can no longer differentiate between the two, they merge in a way that is, like much of war itself, as hazy and impressionistic as it is heartbreaking.
ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS
By Benjamin Buchholz
346 pp. Paperback, $13.99