Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Early praise for Brave Deeds

Most normal people (i.e. non-writers) don’t fully understand the complexities of the writing life. In particular, what happens between the book’s first sentence and publication day. Here’s a helpful timeline:

1.  The author writes the first sentence of a new book and realizes there are only another 104,573 words to go before the first draft is done.
2.  The author freaks out.
3.  The book is written. (See also: Steps 3a through 3w)
4.  The author freaks out.
5.  The book is accepted for publication.
6.  The author freaks out.
7.  The publisher sends out galleys and advance reading copies to book critics six months before the publication date.
8.  The author freaks out.
9.  The first early reviews trickle in.
10.  The author freaks out.
11.  The book is published.
12.  The author stops freaking out because by this point, the book has permanently left the creator’s hands, it stands on its own, and there is little the author can do to change the course of the book’s reception and reputation.

I’m currently somewhere between #9 and #10. People other than my wife and editor have been reading my new novel Brave Deeds and I am, every day, practicing hand-release exercises. The early critical chatter has been gratifyingly, surprisingly good. Every novelist has anxieties and freak-outs--none the less so when it’s a sophomore novel like Brave Deeds. (Okay, they say they liked the first book, but how will this one be received?) You have no idea how many sailor’s-hitch knots I’ve had to untangle from my guts these past few weeks. In many ways, Brave Deeds is a different novel than Fobbit and I hope readers will give it a fair shake. Before I go too much further, let me state that I love ALL readers--even those who dislike Brave Deeds or (worse) are left feeling indifferent by it. No book can ever please everyone. Though I wouldn’t want to meet them, I’m sure there are Charlotte’s Web haters out there. We writers do the best we can, then with a great deal of pride-swallowing, we force open our clenched hands and let the book fly out into the world.

Here, then, are some of the early reports which have come home to roost (some minor spoilers lie ahead):

In Fobbit (2012), Abrams caricatured military personnel who avoided combat overseas. His second novel confronts another underexplored aspect of war: the unlikely bonds formed by mutinous allegiance. Six soldiers steal a Hummer and sneak off base to attend their esteemed commander’s memorial service. Then their vehicle breaks down in the heart of Baghdad. In a city where everyone is a potential enemy, the men risk their careers, and their lives, to get to the service on foot. Battling hunger and paranoia, the squad episodically recalls their daring adventure and Rafe’s violent demise, portraying a complex man who secretly cared for stray dogs and avenged the deaths of innocent victims. Sharing their stories as a collective voice, each man bears his own burden: there’s the notorious overeater, Cheever; impulsively violent Fish; Park the stoic; desperately romantic O, who can’t get over his ex; Drew, who married the wrong woman; and their sententious makeshift leader, Arrow, who spurs them on. Just when the squad’s plights become darkly, hilariously absurd, Abrams surprises with pathos and tenderness. This is military fiction at its truest.

In Abrams’ second novel (after the well-received Fobbit), a group of six soldiers in the Iraq War attend the funeral service of their dead sergeant, which involves stealing a vehicle and essentially going AWOL. The Humvee breaks down in the middle of war-torn Baghdad, and the group ends up getting lost walking to their destination. Somewhere along the way they raid a house they have been told is a bomb factory. Gunshots are exchanged, several people wind up dead, and one of the officers is wounded. After the raid, the soldiers steal a car, and with their injured comrade and a very pregnant Iraqi woman who joins them on the way, they make progress toward the base. Yet getting past the entrance there proves to be one of the most dangerous events of the day. Describing the soldiers’ perilous journey while filling in details of their backgrounds and the military situation in Iraq, this excellent novel is believable, dramatic, and also quite funny.
       (Library Journal)

Abrams returns to the Iraq War in his second novel, which tells the story of six AWOL American soldiers defying orders by crossing Baghdad to attend the funeral of their squad leader, Sgt. Rafael Morgan. It’s a journey made more difficult by the fact that their stolen Humvee has broken down and they now have to cross hostile territory on foot, mapless and without a radio or medic. During these tension-filled hours, we get to know the squad members: new leader Arrow, who is beginning to have doubts about his sexual orientation; Cheever, the overweight screwup; Park, “our quiet one”; Fish, the twitchy FNG (“fucking new guy”); Drew, who dreams of being unfaithful to his wife back home; and O, short for Olijandro, who is everyone’s friend. Their personal mission is interrupted by the search for a bomb factory, a diversion that turns unexpectedly bloody. The journey is also punctuated with nightmarish flashbacks to earlier in the war and the heroic act that cost Sgt. Morgan his life, and glimpses of civilian life. It all builds to an emotionally wrenching and tension-filled climax as the squad attempts to crash the funeral in a hijacked civilian van. Filled with vivid characterizations and memorable moments, this novel—as with classic modern war literature from John Hersey’s Into the Valley to David Halberstam’s One Very Hot Day—turns a single military action into a microcosm of an entire war.
       (Publishers Weekly)

Abrams follows his award-winning debut with a more empathetic but no less bitter take on the Iraq War. In the Land of Not Good, Staff Sgt. Raphael Morgan, “dismembered but not disremembered,” has been killed by an improvised explosive device, “obscene pieces of him flying through the bomb-bloom air.” A band of brothers, troops he led, has decided to attend his memorial service at FOB Saro across Baghdad from their Taji camp. However, officers have denied permission. That’s irrelevant to troopers Arrow, Park, Drew, O, Cheever, and Fish. They steal a Humvee and go AWOL. The Humvee breaks its drive shaft, and the six, edging past death at every door, must hoof it across the “chaotic center of terrorism” amid “al-Qaeda, Mahdi, Ba’ath, and Badr clashing their ideologies and ambitions of evil.” Abrams offers an unusual narrative, first person plural, with points of view discernible only by process of elimination, a subtle reframing of the Rashomon effect. Chapters are long and short, one a mere 38 words, another a prose poem that’s an homage to legs, the infantryman’s mode of transportation. With multiple narrators, each trooper is seen through a different squad member’s eyes. There’s Arrow, distant son of more distant parents, who falls naturally into a leadership role, or the Hajji-hating Fish, years of promotions and demotions turning him into the private soldier with a “shine of gray at his temples” and the ability to shoot prisoners without remorse. As the six march across Baghdad, the heat, dust, and broken buildings stand as warnings until the M4 action explodes in short, spare declarative sentences, every bullet another shot at the cruel and illogical aspects of war. A powerful story on its surface, a soldier’s story laced with vulgarities and gallows humor, but also a story holding deeper interpretations of our troubled Middle Eastern misadventures.
       (Kirkus Reviews)

In his first novel, Fobbit, David Abrams had his satirical way with Iraq War soldiers who lived inside Houston Barricades, lounging at Burger Kings and Dairy Queens on the army’s FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). Abrams had been one of them, serving 20 years as a military journalist. But on the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah, the grunts got their chow in MREs salted with blowing sand. Their only protection from unseen hostile insurgents was a “hillybilly armored” Humvee, their “battle rattle” gear and a squad of alert buddies. Brave Deeds is the story of six such soldiers at Camp Taji, who steal a Humvee to drive across Baghdad to attend the officers-only funeral of their sergeant, killed by an IED. Told by an unnamed member of this motley crew, it is a story as old as The Odyssey--soldiers far from home on a less-than-rational and dangerous journey. When the Humvee’s drive shaft freezes an hour into their mission, they abandon the disabled vehicle, radio and maps to avoid a potential sitting-duck attack, and begin to hoof it to the funeral through unfamiliar streets amid Iraqi citizens. As the narrator puts it: “The situation had gone from bad to totally f**ked... there we were, a cluster of dumb in the middle of Baghdad.” In short chapters, Abrams fleshes out each of these unlikely comrades. As the favorite of the dead sergeant, Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos steps up to take charge, but is as clueless as the others when it comes to navigating the city’s dicey alleys and open-air markets. Abrams’ sarcastic narrator doesn’t miss the metaphor: “We’re all blind men feeling our way across Baghdad; Arrow just happens to be the one in front with the cane.” Cheever is an overweight whiner. Fish has a history of crime and violence back home. O hasn’t gotten over losing his ex-wife. Park is a silent Korean American with overbearing parents. Drew is obsessed with the high school sweetheart who got away. Some are gung-ho for the war and “worship at the First Church of Bush.” Others joined up for the money. Whatever their reasons, they share the ordeal: “We walk. Through the dust, through the thirst, through the sunbake, and now, through the Iraqis filtering into the marketplace with their goats, their dishdashas, their wind-flipped magazines, their snapping teeth, their cooking smoke.” The men in Brave Deeds (and they’re all men) crack funny, gripe at their buddies, and, with reason, fear the unseen. A car full of armed Sunnis opens fire in a public square, killing children, beggars and mothers. A feral dog is run over. A wedding groom is blown apart in a mortar attack. The squad is lured into a wild firefight where a family held hostage by a bomb-making operation is slaughtered. With compact precision and the amusing patter of a sardonic narrator, Abrams captures the unusual histories of these ordinary men shuffling through Baghdad as they encounter the horrors of war. They may be AWOL on a personal mission outside command protocol, but they are heroes in their own ways and perform small brave deeds in the midst of half-baked chaos.
       (Shelf Awareness)

And finally, this dispatch from the Time Now blog in which reviewer Peter Molin makes me sound way better than I am:

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth--is the most kind, gentle, and sweet soul imaginable, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that most junior enlisted rightly assess them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: lots of contemporary war fiction attempts to portray the worldview of junior enlisted—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least.

Pre-order Brave Deeds here or here


  1. Wow! Those reviews! And your premise is amazing... can't wait to get my hands on this book.