In David Abrams’ new novel Brave Deeds, a squad of six young infantrymen make their way on foot through Baghdad from a stolen, broken-down Humvee to the memorial service of their beloved leader, Sgt. Rafe Morgan, who was killed in a bombing four days prior. Officially, they’re being prevented from attending his service because of a sudden, and deeply unfair, assignment to a quick-reaction-force duty. But the members of the self-christened “Rambo Squad” adored Rafe, and they plan to make it to his service come hell or high water, and, well, to quote two characters from Abrams’ 2011 debut novel, Fobbit:
“Aren’t those senior staffers always one step ahead of you?”
“They think they are, but they don’t know jack shit.”
Brave Deeds continues Fobbit’s darkly humorous thesis that, in the forever-wars-on-terror, the men in charge don’t know jack shit. But where Fobbit explores the myriad aggravations and absurdities of life at the rear echelon from the point of view of primarily higher-ranking men (who spend their frustrating days “pole-vaulting over mouse turds”), Brave Deeds belongs to the infantrymen.
The stakes, for Sgt. Morgan’s bereaved soldiers, are high. Rambo Squad is crossing a hostile city on foot, no maps, no cell phones, not even their lily-livered medic. This doesn’t mean that Abrams, whose heart seems to generally lie with the underdog, suddenly goes soft on them. In fact, the six men of Rambo Squad are introduced by, and known for, their character flaws.
There’s Arrow, perhaps the novel’s most complicated man: competitive, hard-edged, a recovering porn addict (but, he clarifies, you can never really recover). He had a relatively privileged-but-negligent childhood: his parents don’t even know he’s in Iraq. Arrow’s feelings for their lost Sgt. Morgan go deeper than the other mens’, a fact of which they are completely unaware, and which Abrams handles with the perfect mix of restraint and tenderness.
There’s Cheever, the chubby, struggling former PAO (public affairs officer), who secretly entertains thoughts of suicide.
Park, quiet half-Korean grandson of a man who fought “on the wrong side.”
Fish, un-convicted murderer and hothead, only three weeks in with the crew and perhaps their biggest liability, or maybe (at certain key points) their most useful asset. The hazy, erratic violence of his personality is reminiscent of Staff Sgt. Chambers in Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood.
Sweet, haplessly romantic O, short for Olijandro, “soft and daydreamy” over his ex-wife Melinda, which makes his crew fear that he could space out and become a “bullet sponge.”
And then there’s Drew, the only one I found unforgivable, but you’ll find out why when you read. Screw you, Drew. The Sisterhood prevents me from liking you.
Anyway. For 254 momentum-filled pages, and told in short, alternating chapters, these men make their way doggedly, quite often foolishly, toward their dead leader; or, rather, his lone boot, waiting at FOB Saro with his rifle and helmet.
Reading a novel narrated in the collective “we” took me a couple of chapters to get used to. At first, I found that my mind kept stubbornly trying to imagine a single voice both part of, and outside, the “we” – a yet-unnamed soldier who’s describing his group while also part of the action. But, no: there is no seventh soldier; they truly are (like the physicists’ wives in TaraShea Nesbitt’s The Wives of Los Alamos) speaking as a collective consciousness. And when you’re reading about a small, tight Army unit, it does start to feel fitting; it really works.
As Brian Castner observes in his Washington Post review, “The ‘we’ of the squad is the union of their better selves, capable of acts of courage and emotional truth that none of them could achieve individually.” As a group, their little hive mind is also privy to information that none of them has individually: none of them notice Arrow’s accentuated grief over Rafe, for example, but the “we” is able to describe it to us.
Each chapter is its own little gem, revealing something important about a character or propelling the energetic plot. But my two favorites are Ch. 32, “Land Nav,” and Ch. 50, “Death.”
“Land Nav” shows the guys back at Ft. Drum, in the middle of a miserable land navigation test for their Warrior Leadership Course. It’s the chapter I hadn’t even known I was waiting for: there’s something a little fun, poignant, and just pleasantly familiar about seeing the crew before they even got to Iraq together. The scene reminded me that, oh yeah, I do know these guys. Their personalities are already well-entrenched (Arrow’s a hyper-competitive dick), and their group dynamic plays out much as it will in Iraq; and, well, there’s the chilly foreboding that when it comes to land nav, they don’t know jack shit either: “Even the clouds of breath coming from our mouths disorient us.”
“Death” is the only chapter that suddenly sheds the Jacob’s Room-style narration and, instead of talking around the beloved character of Rafe, allows us into his point of view. It’s a great move by Abrams, opening with a scene that is nostalgic and gentle and funny, until suddenly it isn’t. It’s the soft, gold-tinted bubble of a dream before the nightmare. I can still picture Rafe doing bicep curls with the tiny little giggling Iraqi girls hanging off his arms, Arrow watching them.
While “Death” is uniquely visual as a chapter, I don’t think I can go on any longer without geeking out over Abrams’ use of sound and smell in his novels. Sight is supposed to be the “easiest” descriptive sense for writers, the one we go to by default, but you could spend a whole Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing class just happily reveling in Abrams’ use of other senses. I dug back in my notebook (a.k.a. my “dorkbook!”) for the quotes I’d jotted down from Fobbit as well. Please, just enjoy for a moment with me:
Here’s Capt. Abe Shrinkle: “His boot steps, rough and determined, sound like someone punching a box of corn flakes.” It should be mentioned that he’s striding to the on-FOB post office, on a mission to collect the two-to-ten care packages he shuttles back to his room like a deranged decorator crab.
Also: “The backpack hit the floor with a sound like a harness of bells on a horse-drawn sleigh traveling through snowy woods.”
Abrams dabbles back into satirical Fobbit territory with his pithy, brilliant skewering of Brave Deeds’ Capt. Bangor,
“him and his always-with-him coffee go mug. When he drinks from the scratched and dented stainless-steel mug, air escapes from the pinhole in the lid and tweets like a songbird. When he raises the mug to his lips—which he does even when standing in front of us at morning formation—it sounds like he’s trying to suck a terrified canary into his mouth.”
See, I couldn’t even type that without giggling.
Last of all, there’s this descriptive gem: Cheever’s blistered, ruined foot after a whole day of walking across Baghdad. “We look at Cheever’s foot outside the boot. It’s moist and raw—straight out of a butcher’s case. And the smell. It’s a sun-ripened leather bag full of vomit sprinkled with sugar. It makes our nostrils cry for mercy.”
Uncle!! You win, Abrams.
In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote a blurb for Brave Deeds some months ago. I was pleased and flattered to see that the blurb made the back of the book. (It’s down near the bottom, but I’m no Ben Fountain.) In any case, one of the words I used to describe Brave Deeds was “subversive,” and I still think it is [btw: is it weird to be publicly agreeing with yourself on your own blog?].
Brave Deeds is subversive in its moments of deviation from the “first-person shooter” narrative, and in its empathy for Iraqi locals: the near-toothless former prisoners of Saddam’s “correctional facilities,” the twelve-children-dead to one American soldier lost in the explosion that killed Rafe, the acknowledgment that the pregnant woman in the back of the flower van may have had her car fired on at checkpoints before while out grocery shopping.
It’s subversive, I think, in the mosaic it paints of the American soldier, in a current culture that seems hell-bent on promoting the old and tired myth of our military as the bastion of manliness, whiteness, and bravery. “A belief that the military provides the best possibility for a white male to ‘become a man,’ even a hero,” as Time Now’s Peter Molin put it in a very smart e-mail.
Rambo Squad sticks it to the man in a blaze of insane glory. The theft of the Humvee, their dangerous trek across Baghdad, even their moments of compassion: none of this has been signed off on by higher, and that’s part of the thrill of it. It’s the ultimate grand gesture, this wave from the ground by six men to their beloved leader lifting off to the heavens. The last chapter of the novel is gorgeous, just perfection. When the chaplain’s assistant tells them, “If you’re here for Sergeant Morgan’s service, you know you’re too late,” you want to laugh at him at the same time as you pity him for missing the whole, monumental, crazy point: The trek was the memorial, you fool. It’s already happened.
Abrams’ model of the American soldier is a little bit of a dangerous one to read, if you have a certain ideal you want to uphold. The faint of heart won’t want to embark on a novel where they’re not guaranteed the safety and valor of the heroes. They might not want to know that G.I. Joe has a secret porn addiction. They might not want to hear about poor Cheeves almost getting himself blown up in a landmine-detonation demo or being slapped on the head by a caged monkey. If that’s the case, then they don’t want to hear about people. But Brave Deeds is about people and, more importantly, what makes us human.
Maybe the most radical thing a novel of the forever wars can do right now, in the year 2017, is make a reader care deeply about the people who are fighting these wars, and to understand the multiplicity of who they are. Once you care, it’s harder to blow off the news stories, to wave your hand and say oh well, to rationalize. Once you care, it’s hard to go back.
And so, in all its subversive, freewheeling, thick-with-cursing-and-lewd-jokes, painful and electric humanity, Brave Deeds gives you the gift and burden of making you care. Sometimes you’ll cheer for Rambo Squad’s bravery and quite frequently you will cringe at their missteps, but you will never not care about what might happen to them.
Abrams, David. Brave Deeds. Black Cat, 2017.
Read David’s fantastic literary blog, The Quivering Pen
About the author: David Abrams, author of Fobbit, which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, served in the U.S. Army for twenty years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a public affairs team. He lives in Butte, Montana.