To say that we’re entering a new “golden age” of war fiction is to engage in an awkward form of self-congratulation — rather like noting that the overall quality of our staged plays about racial bigotry has never been higher, or that the nation’s ballooning unemployment rate has led to a spectacular renaissance of social-realist filmmaking. Nothing complicates the celebration of a cultural high-water mark like the knowledge that we owe it to a rising tide of human misery.
And yet it’s true. Although we’re still a few years away from being able to view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the clarifying lens of closure, a number of writers have taken it upon themselves to put together the beginnings of a canon. The best of them, like the short-story writer Phil Klay (“Redeployment”) and the novelists David Abrams (“Fobbit”) and Ben Fountain (“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”), seem to understand that the protracted nature of modern war — nobody really bothers to “declare” it anymore, and it certainly doesn’t end with a surrender or an armistice — can easily lead to chronic moral fatigue. That’s a highly troubling state for our fighting men and women to find themselves in. But for a fiction writer who’s striving to create believably complex characters, there’s no better place to start.
Michael Pitre joined the Marines in 2002 and served for a total of eight years, ultimately rising to the level of captain during the course of his two deployments to Iraq. His first novel, “Fives and Twenty-Fives,” is a satisfyingly tight if somewhat dutifully plotted account of life in a Marine platoon assigned to the unenviable task of road repair. In war-torn Anbar Province, the job isn’t all that different from the civilian version to be found in Anytown, USA, save for the fact that the pothole you encounter may contain a bomb, and that people are likely to be shooting at you while you fill it.
Leading the platoon is Pete Donovan, the unit’s college-educated, Quantico-certified and slightly self-conscious lieutenant — a man who would probably be vaguely chagrined to know that most of his men think he looks “like he was on his way to an outdoor jam band festival one day, took a wrong turn, and ended up in the Marines.” But narrating a modern war novel, like removing a concealed roadside bomb, isn’t a one-man job: Sharing the storytelling duties with Lt. Donovan are Lester “Doc” Pleasant, a young medic whose intuitive gift for healing doesn’t necessarily extend to his own ravaged psyche, and Kateb (nicknamed “Dodge”), the Iraqi interpreter whose loyalty and sincere love of American culture quickly endear him to the members of the platoon. He’s a Baghdad-bred Mark Twain scholar who can also expound on the rhetorical divide between gangsta rappers on the East and West coasts.
When we meet these three, each has left the Iraqi theater and is trying, with varying degrees of success, to get on with his postwar life. Donovan is a brooding and emotionally detached MBA candidate in New Orleans. Doc, a recovering addict who lives with his father and hangs out at heavy-metal shows, has poignantly fashioned a version of his combat medic’s bag out of an old backpack, which he keeps on the passenger seat of his truck. For his part, Dodge, the most fully realized character of the three, has had the misfortune of landing in Tunisia, where he is uneasily observing the violent birth of the Arab Spring, the revolutionary wave that began cutting across the Middle East in 2010. Everything about their narration hints at a tragic event in which they are all, to one degree or another, implicated.
As a writer, Pitre is at his best when describing the unique mix of tedium and terror that marks the life of a Marine, and when he’s exploring the psychological effect of torn loyalties — between honor and duty, between self-preservation and the mission — that can fray the moral fabric of a unit. He also has a gift for wringing light comedy out of serious desperation, such as when three Iraqis attempt to earn money for their flight out of the country by converting a cluster of decrepit mud huts on a forlorn lake into a “beach resort” that will cater to Shia, Sunni and American servicemen.
He’s less adept, unfortunately, at making readers care much one way or the other about what will become of the various characters populating his story. With the exception of Dodge, for whom “torn loyalties” necessarily means choosing which loved ones he will betray and abandon, there’s a cardboard quality to Pitre’s Marines, whose souls seem not tortured so much as flattened. Despite the fact that we’re privy to their inner monologues, we never really come to know these men. They brood; they self-medicate; they reflect; they flirt with pretty girls who may or may not be able to handle all of their brooding and self-medicating and reflecting. The dials of their personalities are stuck on a single setting: deep regret that leaves them taciturn and edgy, but not terribly interesting.
Even so, “Fives and Twenty Fives” is at many times a compelling read, and never more so than when Pitre is exploring the social and political tensions within Iraqi society that have made the act of rebuilding the country, post-Saddam, so damnably difficult. Every soldier in a squadron, and every Marine in a platoon, has a specific job to do. Clearly, every wartime fiction writer has a specialty, too.
Turrentine, an editor at OnEarth magazine, is a frequent Book World contributor.
FIVES AND TWENTY-FIVES
By Michael Pitre
Bloomsbury. 377 pp. $32