“We walk, we walk, we walk.”
The only way out, as the saying goes, is through. The how is entirely up to the traveler. Where one person might choose wheels, another will choose a horse. The six-man hodgepodge that comprises David Abrams’ newest outing, Brave Deeds, choose to walk. For starters, anyways, because since when do odysseys ever go exactly according to plan?
To meet the six main characters of Brave Deeds — because they do share that narrative burden, through the employment of the first person plural — is to meet “men of flaws” who all bear uncanny resemblances to so many old friends: Drew, the reliably unfaithful; Cheever, the pudgy tagalong teetering on the edge of suicide; ”O,” an inveterate Monty Python fan preoccupied with thoughts of his ex-wife; Fish, the grey-templed FNG who manages to be both hairpin-trigger violent and absolutely useless; Park, quiet but quick to rage, whose family history of warfare is a blur of opposing sides; “Arrow,” the stalwart soldier with a porn addiction he can’t seem to shake; and Sergeant Raphael “Rafe” Morgan, their much-loved leader recently killed by a VBIED, “dismembered but not disremembered.”
The reader knows each of these characters at first glance. But while each of them is thoroughly marinated in his respective archetype, the meat of them — and their story — is in the collective conscience they share, and their plunge into an eight-hour Odyssey through Baghdad, going AWOL after being assigned to QRF duty in order to attend the funeral services of Sgt. Morgan at the next base over. We never sink into one mind but rather ping from one to the next, seeing and learning each man through the eyes of the others—always “We” and in one instance “You,” taking that old, careworn adage about “I” and teams and turning it into form. And, because their familiar company comforts us, we follow them.
Here, Abrams presents Baghdad to a degree of detail that calls to mind The Sheriff of Babylon in their vivid rendering. The city rises up to meet the reader in the “hot green dark of the building[s],” in a curtain being “pulled aside by the back of a hand,” or in one memorable instance, a marketplace, full of food that “fills our mouths with clouds of flavor.” In this Baghdad, the Swords of Qādisīyah are relegated to the furthest of rear views, and taking its place in the foreground are the people, their wares, the collapsed buildings and dusty alleys the squad must navigate under a hot, unrelenting sun. Here, Baghdad is both backdrop and central character, a desert city and a bloody one, but also a place teeming with life and fat-dripping halal chicken and bright flowers and pet goats. The kind of place a reader can get lost in, just as these six soldiers do.
It is one of Abrams’ unique gifts, the ability to lull a reader into a false sense of security through setting and his dry humor, pop culture references, and some standard tawdry soldier-speak. In less deft hands, it would be heavy-handed and without payoff. One might draw a straighter line of comparison to Vonnegut rather than Heller in his scathing treatment of war and its inhabitants using as few words as possible. His use of satire — much as it was in his debut novel, Fobbit — is that warm bath into which the reader sinks, only to find herself in boiling water a few minutes later.
The events of Brave Deeds escalate as the book progresses, as all good journey novels should. But it is the short, interspersed segments of prose detailing the lives of the men of Sgt. Morgan’s squad that provide the reader with those moments that elevate Brave Deeds from another Iraq War novel to a piercing examination of how much fighting a war in a desert country simply sucks—how we have to wonder why we ever went there in the first place, how and why we stayed so long, who we sent there, what was the reason. By the time the events of the novel coalesce into a make-or-breaking point with two lives on the line, we know Drew, Park, O, Angel, Cheever, Arrow, Fish, and Rafe well enough to feel their shock and loss, their acute grief at the prospect of losing another man, their bewilderment toward a shrieking pregnant woman emerging from a bed of flowers in the back of a van. As a result, the reader comes to hate being downrange as much as the soldiers do, resents the heat and thirst and the constant feeling that they’re about to get blown to pieces, all the while missing something they can’t quite seem to get back to.
Some of those moments can be seen coming from a mile away; others sneak up and drop you before you have a chance to blink. Occasionally, the asides and flashbacks put weight on the story’s otherwise propellant forward momentum, but Abrams never drops a thread: everything introduced finds some degree of resolution. And if the ending seems diminished compared to the events that lead up to it, one might argue that that’s the whole point.
Like the wars themselves, the events that bookend Brave Deeds form that cruel Möbius strip of death and rebirth ad infinitum — the inescapable forever-sequence of life turning back on itself. In one afternoon, what begins as “Grand Theft Humvee” devolves into the quest for something that ultimately cannot be recovered or reclaimed: a dead man, for one, but time more so. And more than life, it’s time that slips away faster than any one of these men can hold on to it, in daydreams or in reality, regardless of what it is they want to do with it. To read Brave Deeds is to hear an implacable clock ticking somewhere in the back of one’s brain, reminding the reader as it does Morgan’s soldiers every step of the way: there isn’t nearly enough time, and never as much as we want there to be.