The Short Version: At Forward Operating Base Triumph in Iraq, this cockamamie war stumbles forward and everyone plays their part. The soldiers go out and nearly get killed while the fobbits stay inside the base and live in relative luxury. But as the war drags on and folks get sloppy, some bad shit starts to cross over…
The Review: Let’s start with a moment of appreciation for the gorgeous cover here. This book is just damn good looking. It’s simple and witty – the Urban Dictionary definition done up and everything – and just pretty to look at, in your hand and on your shelf. Sometimes, simpler is better.
Now, the book itself. Most important thing to address is that this, indeed, may be the closest thing we get to a Catch-22 for the Iraq War. It’s a part of the Tournament of Books, which is the only reason I actually picked it up – but it does deserve a wider readership and will, perhaps, gain it as the temporal distance between our present and that stupid conflict grows in size. It is not as mindboggingly witty OR absolutely batshit crazy as Catch-22 – but, then, we live in a different society now. The other analogy, actually, would be Gravity’s Rainbow – I even felt a slight (intentional or otherwise) shout out to that book in the last line of the novel.
All three of these books take us directly into the war and show us the insanity of otherwise relatively mundane moments. The best thing about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was the examination of the soldier psyche extracted from the battlefield – the best thing about this book is the examination of everyday life a heartbeat away from it. It’s like a companion piece to The Hurt Locker: where that movie was harrowing and stark and sad, this is hilarious. The two things are flip sides of the same coin, really.
This is a book that benefits from analogies and “oh, it reminds me of…” but it does stand up on its own as well. Abrams’ reporting background come in handy here, making it easy to understand while also being able to layer things into the words – secondary and tertiary meanings. He spells most of them out, because it’s not like you have to do what the POA’s do here and really magick the press releases to give as little information as possible while spinning it for the good of the folks back home, but it’s fun to watch him explain exactly how the media did then and continues to fail us. It’s also fun to watch him toy with his characters. They all seem a little too weird to be real…. but then, as you look around at your co-workers or even just the people you pass on the street, you realize that these people are exactly weird enough to be real. I did have a bit of trouble tracking their arcs at times, especially in the first third or so of the novel, where we’re still getting introduced. The chapter headings of “this person!” were helpful but only to a point – sometimes, I couldn’t quite recall who Lumley was/how he related to the rest of the characters until halfway through his chapter.
There’s also some psychological stuff happening here: the sorts of people who go to war, which tends to be the aim (intended or otherwise) of anyone writing this sort of book. It’s fascinating to see the way characters lie, cheat, obfuscate, and otherwise try to get out of going to battle (in whatever way battle might be occurring). This war was a joke – we all knew that and the people who were on the ground, no matter how hard the press reps tried, not only knew that we knew it but they also knew it too. This is maybe the first book I’ve read where I genuinely got that sense, though – that they saw the futility of it all just as much as we look at the futility of the schemes Yossarian attempts.
But the one thing is… the book never quite succeeds in the actual satire because, I think, it got a little scared. The end of the book is ridiculously madcap and hilarious and I loved it, so so much – but it felt a bit out of place. As though someone had gone through and edited the first two thirds to back it down a little bit but then left the final third intact. As a result, the satirical crazy that surrounds Shrinkle’s downfall feels a bit… well, out of place in the otherwise rather stark reality that is immediately established at the beginning. I know, I’m sounding vaguely contradictory – but the insanity of the reality at the beginning feels, well, real. It does not feel like satire or at all satirical. So for it to make a rather large leap in the back stretch – although it manages to pull it off moderately well – tries the reader just a little bit.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Funny, incisive, smart – it’s what all war books should be. Is it our Catch-22? I should think so. This war was never going to provoke an exceptional work of fiction because no one gives a shit about this war – so provoking a merely very, very good work of fiction (several, in fact), should be consolation enough. Now, if we could only make sure everyone in government read this… might go a long ways in making sure this shit never happens again.