In the deluge of Iraq War-themed books that appeared in 2012, David Abrams’s “Fobbit” was known as the funny one. Drawn from his experience as an Army public affairs officer, it tells the story of the “marshmallow” soldiers confined to base, writing news releases about a war they never see.
But funny was always the wrong word for that novel. “Fobbit” is clever and absurd, but too earnest for carefree guffaws, full of biting if-you-don’t-laugh-you-cry satire. In interviews, Abrams often said that he was not primarily a humorist and that “Fobbit” was an outlier.
He has proved that in his new novel, which is only rarely funny, though still plenty earnest and affecting. Set at the height of the Iraq War, “Brave Deeds” is the story of six soldiers sneaking across the suburbs of Baghdad to attend the memorial service of their beloved platoon sergeant, Rafe Morgan, who was blown to pieces by a car bomb. Assigned to quick reaction force (QRF) duty during the ceremony, they go AWOL instead and steal a Humvee to drive across town to the base where the service will be held.
The war is just happening to these young men, who serve on the lowest rung in the Army hierarchy, and, as implausible as it might be, this quest is their chance to regain some agency. “The point is — if we were to get this far in our s--t-for-brains reasoning — the point is that we want to tell the command group to take their QRF roster and shove it up their air-conditioned fobbity asses. We’ll show you!”
The whole novel is written in this collective first-personal plural. The six members of the unit are all screw-ups in their own way — a porn addict, an adulterer, a semi-suicidal Piggy from “Lord of the Flies” — but together, they add up to more than the sum of their parts. “Our breath slows until we are, without realizing it, inhaling and exhaling as one twelve-legged animal,” the squad says. The “we” of the squad is the union of their better selves, capable of acts of physical courage and emotional truth that none of them could achieve individually. They imagine how it will be when they finally get to the memorial service: a dramatic entrance, “standing at the back of a church, all heads swiveling.” They’ll “march down the aisle, smelling of dust,” they say, and “there will be gasps of surprise, of admiration, of anger.” The squad is a pack of Tom Sawyers, going to their own funeral, which is right, because without Sgt. Morgan, part of the “we” will forever be dead.
“Brave Deeds” takes place on a single afternoon, a five-hour sprint across enemy territory, though with regular and often momentum-sapping flashbacks to flesh out each squad member’s backstory. A rule of thumb in modern moviemaking says that the first step in creating dramatic tension is to take away every character’s cellphone, so they get lost and can’t call for help. Abrams uses a similar convention, stripping the squad of its vehicle, medic, radio and map in the first chapter. Over the course of the journey across Baghdad, there are shootouts and pee breaks, tragedies and victories, and a lunch stop for halal chicken that made my stomach rumble in anticipation.
The soldiers are foulmouthed, sex-obsessed and fiercely loyal for reasons they can’t quite articulate — in other words, packed with young American male authenticity. Abrams’s prose is relaxed and conversational, with a few scattered literary nuggets that add heft, like chunks of beef in a vegetable soup; bodies are taking a “terrible nap,” explosions are a “bomb-bloom,” a fatal bullet makes “a hole no bigger than a goldfish’s mouth.” The mash-up works, and Abrams’s voice is clear and strong.
In the climactic final scene, though, Abrams attempts to braid thematic strands of death and rebirth and religious communion, never quite attaining the emotional heights to which he aspires. But the central irony — that this funeral is more important to them than any mission their squad has undertaken — remains front and center. In the Iraq War, we veterans eventually realized that they were killing us mostly because we were killing them, and the reverse as well. It’s a cycle cruelly laid bare in “Brave Deeds,” where Abrams reminds us that death always begets more death.
By David Abrams
Black Cat. 256 pp. Paperback, $16