Advertisement
  1. Books

Review: David Abrams' 'Brave Deeds' is a stirring, sardonic war story

Published Aug. 22, 2017

With sabre-rattling by politicians in the air, it's a good time to be reminded what war is like for those who actually go fight it.

David Abrams' new novel, Brave Deeds, is a mordantly funny and harrowing closeup of that experience. Abrams served in the U.S. Army for 20 years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He set his first novel there, titling it Fobbit, a pejorative term for soldiers who avoid combat by never leaving the forward operating base, or FOB. (Abrams was a real-life fobbit, assigned to a public relations unit.)

In Brave Deeds, he sends his characters out of the relative safety of the FOB and onto the perilous streets of Baghdad — but not on any official mission.

The six soldiers — Arrow, Cheever, Drew, Fish, Park and O — have gone AWOL to cross the city to attend the memorial service for their sergeant, who was killed by a car bomb. The book effectively employs an unusual narrative method: first-person plural, a collective voice that includes all six soldiers.

"We double-time across Baghdad on our twelve feet," Abrams writes, "a mutant dozen-legged beetle dashing from rock to rock, confident in its shell but always careful of the soft belly beneath. We are six men moving single file along the alleys, the edges of roads, the maze of beige buildings. We keep moving: ducking and dodging and cursing and sprinting. We wonder how it could have gone so wrong so fast."

The journey begins as almost a lark, albeit a somber one. But a seventh man, the unit's medic, decides not to go; then their purloined Humvee breaks down. In their rush to abandon it, knowing how vulnerable they will be to attack once Iraqis in the neighborhood notice, they forget to bring their radio and map.

'HUE 1968': Mark Bowden's intense account of critical Vietnam battle

So they make their way on foot, guessing at the route and unable to call for support, through the baffling, hostile neighborhoods of Baghdad, under the eyes of unseen snipers and a burning sun: "We are on the way to FOB Saro to attend the memorial service for Sergeant Rafe Morgan and we are determined to make it there before sundown, alive, intact, all twelve arms and legs still attached."

The novel's narrative alternates between their risky, increasingly tense trip through the city and third-person flashbacks that give the reader glimpses into individual soldiers' lives. In those flashbacks, we learn secrets that are shameful or heartbreaking or both — childhood neglect, racism, infidelity and divorce, even murder.

In the book's present, we see amazing courage, skill and unshakable bonds among the men, even those who might not like each other much. No thought is given to the political reasons for the war; they fight for each other.

Not that they would put it so sentimentally. One of the strengths of Brave Deeds is its self-deprecating, sardonic humor, reminiscent of such classic war novels as Catch-22. There's a scathingly funny description of an on-base "Fun Nights" concert the soldiers attend by a D-list country group. The singers pluck Park, who is Korean-American and a deeply angry man, from the audience for a sing-along of God Bless the USA on stage.

"We were all so sick of God Bless the USA by that point," Abrams writes, "a little puke came up in the back of our mouths every time we heard the first words of the swampy, patriotic treacle. If we ever saw Lee Greenwood walking down the street, we'd kick the ever-lovin' red-white-and-blue s--- out of him." The sing-along doesn't end well.

Park also gets the dark punch line after the soldiers find and secure a bomb factory. (They can't ignore a threat just because they're AWOL.)

"Inside the house, Fish goes through a cardboard box. He holds up a pastel-pink Beanie Baby, a unicorn. There's a knife slit through its belly. 'What do you suppose —'

" 'Grenade delivery system,' Park says. ... 'Here, kid. Here's a present for you. Go show your mom and dad. They'll be so surprised.' "

Among the war's dangers, which he renders with hold-your-breath vividness, Abrams finds deeply human moments, like Morgan's friendship with their teenage Iraqi translator and his adoption of a stray dog with tuxedo markings they dub James Bond.

He also reveals, slowly, over the course of the journey, the full story of how and why Morgan died. At the start, it's just one more horror of war: "We were there that day, that most horrible day on our calendar of awful. We don't like to think of our Sergeant Morgan like that — the obscene pieces of him flying through the bomb-bloom air." By the end we understand why his men risk their lives to pay their respects to a pair of empty boots.

Brave Deeds does what the most memorable books about war always do: honor the valor and sacrifice of soldiers while facing unflinchingly how little the rest of the world may value them. Abrams' soldiers must find their own meaning, and in a city full of death, they fight for life.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Michael Connelly, creator and co-writer of "Bosch," poses at the season two premiere of the Amazon original series at the Pacific Design Center on March 3, 2016, in West Hollywood, Calif. CHRIS PIZZELLO  |  Invision | AP
    The bestselling author will publish two more novels and see the debut of a second TV series based on his work next year.
  2. Michael Connelly in 2015. Courtesy of Mark DeLong
    The iconic Los Angeles detective and his talented protegee pursue killers in the mean streets and the corner offices. | Review
  3. Authors James Baldwin (maroon), Kristen Arnett (pink), Rita Mae Brown (yellow), Tanya Boteju (green), Thomas Page McBee (turquoise), Alison Bechel (blue), Mariko Tamaki (lime green), Alexander Chee (red), Kate Bornstein (purple) and Eileen Myles (orange). Illustration by Lisa Merklin  |  tbt*
    Books help to chronicle the long, storied, beautiful and diverse LGBTQ community. | Ashley Dye
  4. University of South Florida professor Jay Hopler. Courtesy of Jay Hopler
    Plus, Diane Dewey will sign her memoir at St. Petersburg bookstore Haslam’s.
  5. Jill Ciment. Courtesy of Arnold Mesches
    The story of jurors on a Florida murder trial takes some wicked twists.
  6. Author Susan Isaacs' new novel is "Takes One to Know One." Linda Nutter
    ‘Takes One to Know One’ follows an ex-FBI agent uncovering hidden identity and crime in an upscale suburb.
  7. Florida Literary Legend Craig Pittman at work on the Ichetucknee River in 1999. Times (1999)
    His five books about the state and award-winning environmental reporting for the Times earned him the title.
  8. The 27th annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading is coming up on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. Times (2017)
    Roy Peter Clark is also set to offer a workshop at Oxford Exchange in Tampa.
  9. Edie Windsor walks at the 46th annual NYC Pride March in 2016. Windsor was the Grand Marshal of the 2013 parade, just after the Supreme Court ruled in her favor and struck down the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. Her case set the stage for Obergefell v. Hodges in which the Supreme Court made marriage equality legal nationwide. A KATZ  |  a katz  |  Shutterstock
    It’s a pleasure to hear from the late lesbian trailblazer, whose landmark case set the stage for marriage equality nationwide. | Book review
  10. Graham Kropp, 9 and his father Steve Kropp, both of Seminole, shop for Star Wars items at the Clearwater Target, 2747 Gulf To Bay Blvd, Friday, October 4, 2019 in the Disney Store section. Friday was the release of this year's Force Friday Star Wars products. Target sales associate Kat McCauley, right, offers them some Star Wars themed cup cakes.  SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    The “shop-in-shop” location is one of only 25 in the country and two in the state of Florida.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement