Review of Fobbit by David Abrams
There’s no better backdrop for a biting satire than the military. Its bureaucracy is all about adhering to rules, even when they don’t make sense, and military hierarchy is based, unfortunately, less on meritocracy than number of days served. There is a host of red tape, official policy, and the pressure to conform. Joseph Heller nailed the absurdity of World War II with Catch-22. The film M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’s magnum opus recounting the surreal nature of fighting in Korea, though the subtext was Vietnam, a conflict we couldn’t understand or ever really win.
Now, David Abrams brings you the Iraq War in Fobbit, his debut novel. A few books are starting to trickle in about this war, but in my opinion, this is the best satirical work of fiction to date. It would seem that Abrams, who had a 20-year military career, walked away from Iraq with the impression he had left a proverbial house of mirrors, full of humorous and frightening reflections of everyday life in the heart of a war zone.
Fobbit is based on the diary Abrams kept while serving at the Forward Operating Base at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. The Forward Operating Base, or FOB, is described as the back-office of the battlefield where soldiers eat and sleep between missions, and where conditions seem more akin to an office job located somewhere in the heart of America, rather than a war zone. There are flush toilets, sand-free sheets, cable TVs, Starbucks, and Burger Kings. Not what you usually equate with soldiers waging deadly war in the desert. Abrams was a full-fledged Fobbit, a soldier who rarely left the safety of the FOB so he knows of what he writes.
At the heart of Fobbit is the character Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., and he is the “Fobbitiest.” He works in the public affairs office writing press releases about newsworthy events of each day. Gooding’s job is to spin the ugly into something pretty that the folks back home can be proud of, or at least stomach. At one point he thinks:
No one wanted to read: “A soldier was vaporized when his patrol hit an Improvised Explosive Devise, his flesh thrown into a nearby tree where it draped like Spanish moss.” But the generals and colonels of the Seventh Armored Division all agreed that the folks back home would appreciate hearing: “A soldier paid the ultimate sacrifice while carrying out his duties in Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Besides Gooding, the cast of characters includes three other major players: Lt. Col. Vic Duret, who is a tough Army guy of the old breed who can’t stop daydreaming about being home in bed with his wife and golden retriever, Captain Abe Shrinkle, who is company commander but is woefully incompetent, and Lt. Col. Eustace Harkleroad, a nervous man prone to nosebleeds. The point of view switches back and forth from one to another. It also messes with the chronology of events, a plot device which reminded me of Catch-22.
The story follows the characters through the daily course of their banal lives in the modern-day war zone. Their goal is to do their time and make it home alive. It is both comic and tragic, of course. People die in the course of humor. The reader can never forget that this is a war we are barely out of, and that our soldiers and innocent people continue to die while we read and chuckle to ourselves. This is a good thing. The gift of war literature is to remind readers of the unacknowledged circumstances that most of us will never experience. Especially in the wars we’re currently fighting, it is certainly true that most of us will never fight on foreign soil, lose a love one to war, or even know someone who has lost someone to war, let alone experience the absurdities of life in the military.
This satire is literate. Abrams has mastered the craft of writing, and his prose beautifully captures the environment as well as the inner thoughts of the major characters. I kept waiting for him to stumble, or for the plot to fall apart, but he deftly wove the characters and the plot line into a cohesive story and finish that will leave you satisfied on every level.
I must mention the dialogue in Fobbit. So often a perfectly good book contains dialogue that is stilted or nearly absent from the narrative. In Fobbit, the dialogue helps drive the story to its conclusion. Thankfully, Abrams has a natural ear for it. Here’s an excerpt:
Harkleroad bent over the edited release, his lips moving as he silently read Gooding’s work.
“Hm. Okay. Uh-oh. Look, you’ve got ‘suicide’ in the headline.
“That’s okay because I’ve got another change. Let’s take out the part about the shopping district and the fruit and tea. It tends toward humanization of the Local Nationals–you know, blurs the line of our neutrality here. Looks like we’re sensationalizing the deaths of these three poor Iraqis.”
“Okay, sir.” …
“On second thought…”
“Let’s take out all reference to the dead Iraqis. We’ll let the Ministry of Interior make that announcement. Besides, I’m a little reluctant to play up the fact that only one of our guys was killed, versus the three on the home team. Collateral deaths are always a tricky thing, Sergeant Gooding.”
“Yes, sir, they are.”
“It sort of plays into the ‘if you weren’t here, this would never have happened’ mentality,” Harkleroad said.
I can recommend Fobbit as an outrageously funny book that will give you an insider’s look into the day-to-day routine of the military machine. But, I can assure you that beneath the laughter lies a darker reality. Comedy is comfortably in bed with tragedy in this one. Fobbit will stick with you, and perhaps bubble up the next time you watch a news account of yet another soldier killed.
David Abrams’ short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, The Literarian, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review and other literary quarterlies. He regularly blogs about the literary life at The Quivering Pen. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He lives in Butte, Montana with his wife.