Saturday, March 2, 2013

Baghdad Bureaucracy and Grim Humor

Fobbit by David Abrams
(Grove Press, 2012)
Format: Audio CDs via library (read by David Drummond)

From Goodreads: "Fobbit \’fä-bit\, noun. Definition: A U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Pejorative.

In the satirical tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield – where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like an office job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy.

Darkly humorous and based on the author's own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war."

War is fun! Okay, perhaps war isn't fun. But Abrams sure is. He took his experiences in the Iraq war and swirled them in a layer of sarcasm, a sprinkling of humanity, and leavened it with all the absurdity at his disposal. And it's yummy. A bitter trifle, sweetened by excellent comic timing and a plot that grows, almost without the reader noticing, to one of those perfectly constructed moments of ironic narrative inevitability.

Two things about the characters: the primary narrative voice, Gooding, is far from foible-free, making sympathy with him something he really has to earn; and the secondary characters are deep enough, even the deeply flawed ones, to avoid caricaturization and blanket ridicule. Everyone has someone who loved him once, or the intention to behave properly, or something real and redeeming about him. And as much as the grunts outside of FOB Triumph dealing with daily life on the streets of Baghdad might look askance at the Fobbits in the air conditioning of Saddam's former palace, Abrams gives the back-office set enough of a purpose to somewhat balance the often ridiculous bureaucratic shell game they tend to be playing, day in and day out.

Some readers might tire of the constantly sarcastic tone, unless they're listening to Drummond's narration, when they will instead be laughing, then laughing, then laughing some more. Each character's distinctive, carefully planned (I have to presume) and perfectly gauged voice is a gem. He's also finely tracing, with his tone, the journey from, for example, writing an early press release about a KIA soldier, with all the fresh horror of the danger outside the gates and gruesome photos in the in-box uppermost, to the ennui of the third or fourth such report in a shift, when it's all about carefully parsing how much of a presence the Iraqi forces should be reported as having in the latest incident. Drummond and Abrams are one of those perfect narrator-author pairings, and I'm so glad I listened to this title as I tackled the Tournament of Books. Much as I gobbled up Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I hope that Fobbit beats it into the play-in round, because I'd love to engage in more conversations about it. (I haven't read the 3rd option, Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, so I kinda also hope that makes it, which would give me a push to move it up my TBR list.) (Not that my TBR list isn't a megalith dominating my bedside already.) (But enough about me. Get Fobbit on audio. Enjoy!)

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