Brave Deeds by David Abrams, review by Bruce Jacobs
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's 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.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.