Fobbitby Published 04 Sep 2012
|Publisher||Grove Press, Black Cat|
Fobbit \’fä-bit\, noun. Definition: A U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Pejorative.
In the satirical tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield – where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like an office job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy.
Darkly humorous and based on the author's own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war.
If somewhere there is a society devoted to bleakness, where to have a bleak outlook is aspired to by all, and the highest virtue is to live life as bleakly as possible, this book should be on their school syllabus. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Life can be bleak. War is always bleak. So it follows that life during war is likely not a fun-filled prance through a flowering meadow. Fobbit is a book set during the recent U.S-led Iraqi conflict, and while there is much humor in the book the portrait it paints of soldiers at war is one that I found terribly sad.
Fobbit follows the soldiering of several very different men. The first, Captain Abe Shrinkle, is an incompetent frontline 'door-kicker' who is way out of his depth in the life-or-death situations he finds himself in. Shrinkle's constant screw-ups and the death spiral of his army career are a great window into the mismanagement and butt-covering that the army, like any large organisation, can engage in to the detriment of it's combat soldiers.
The second narrative follows Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, one of the titular Fobbits (REMFs in a previous era) - non-combat personnel who spend their tours working in the airconditioned comparative safety of Forward Operating Bases- also knows as FOBs. Gooding spends his war writing and redrafting press releases in a sort of absurdist bureaucratic hell, carrying out pointless tasks for his incompetent, sniveling boss. Gooding's work, while safer and more cushy than that of a frontline soldier, is in it's own way sad and soul-warping.
Other characters who feature prominently include Vic Duret- a hardarse Colonel trying to deal with Shrinkle's incompetence, and the aformentioned snivelling boss who makes Gooding's life a misery.
None of the characters are having what you would call a good deployment. While some of them dodge bullets and dispense death, and others wear a butt-shaped groove in an air-conned office chair it soon becomes clear that in Abrams' Iraq nobody escapes the war without taking shrapnel of at least the psychological sort.
Despite this grimness, Fobbit is an enjoyable read. Abram's book is billed as a sort of Iraqi Catch-22 but to my mind this novel is blacker and less comedic than Heller's book. In saying this, Fobbit is still pretty funny in parts - imagine The Hurt Locker meets Office Space - and there are a number of memorably amusing scenes. In particular Abrams' portrayal of Aussie soldiers as tanned, easygoing and Fosters-slugging is pretty funny, although I've never seen a real aussie drink a can of Fosters Lager.
Overall, I enjoyed Fobbit, and it flows well. Abrams' portrayal of war as violent, confusing, bureaucratic and absurd resonated with me, and I felt his authentic experiences as a soldier coming through the pages. Fobbit isn't the new Catch-22, but it doesn't need to be.
"Sir, is your captain a complete and utter idiot prone to eating Stupid Sandwiches at every meal?"
Duret couldn't meet the battle captain's eyes. "Something like that, I guess."
I had been saving this book for a rainy day - that is to say, after being in something of a slump. I saw it as a treat: something I knew I would enjoy. I was right.
This is a book about American soldiers stationed at an FOB in Baghdad. Everyone is calling it "the modern Catch-22", but I don't think that's very fair. I suppose people always have the urge to compare something to a classic, but I wish they wouldn't. This book is not really like Catch-22, but since it is about war and has a sense of humor, it gets placed side-by-side with Heller's time-honored tome. This book is not as funny as Catch-22, and it has a completely different tone.
Each chapter deals with life from the perspective of different people on base:
1.) Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, Jr., a "fobbit" who never leaves the comforting air-conditioning of the relatively cushy FOB. Fobbits are soldiers who avoid leaving base and are terrified of gunfire, bombs, and dying in Iraq. Soldiers who never "get their hands dirty." The term "fobbit" was brand-new to me, but I am very familiar with the term "REMF" and fobbits are just about the same thing.
Gooding is a public affairs officer and it's his job to write press releases about what's going on in Baghdad and put "a positive spin on things," even when there's nothing positive to be spun. Abrams puts a lot of humor and sarcasm in a bureaucratic job which basically entails spewing bullshit to the press and the "ostrich Americans" back home who have their heads in the sand and only want to hear uplifting things about Iraq.
No one wanted to read: "A soldier was vaporized when his patrol hit an IED, his flesh thrown into a nearby tree where it draped like Spanish moss."
Gooding is always reading some classic book (A Tale of Two Cities, Don Quijote, etc.). Once he is even shown reading Catch-22 in what was actually a very funny and meta moment. I feel like this character is probably the closest to the actual author. He's smart and even though he is a self-preservationist who avoids any kind of conflict or combat, he seems like a basically likable person. He keeps a secret diary about Iraq on a thumb drive and it's through this diary that we get to experience a different style of writing than Abrams normally uses.
2.) Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret. This was by far my favorite character: a hardass, brave, decision-maker who goes out and faces IEDs, terrorists, and gunfire every day. Even though he puts on a very gruff and tough exterior, he spends the book constantly fantasizing about seeing his wife and dog again. Especially his wife's breasts, which he is rather obsessed about. I found this endearing. I am a soft-touch for a man who loves his wife and dog.
There were just two things that he wanted at this particular moment his golden retriever, Ginger, snuffling and slobbering against the palm of his hand; and his wife's tit in his mouth. While Ginger licked his hand, he'd suck on his wife like he was a baby and if he was lucky she wouldn't catch him crying over all the bad shit he'd brought home from Baghdad.
He also is still reeling from the fact that his brother-in-law was killed in the September 11 attacks. He often suffers from visions of his brother-in-law, Ross, stumbling around his office engulfed in flames and leaping from the window to a certain death.
Ross dead Ross dead Ross dead. Running through the remains of his office, crackling and sizzling, flesh dripping off the tips of his fingers, legs carrying him forward by reflex alone because there was nothing left inside of Ross not already cooked by fuel and flame.
The pounding in Duret's brain vibrated against his sinus cavity. Behind the curtain of his fingers, he broke into a sweat as, inside his head, his brother-in-law bumped against desks and plunged through the blizzard of once-important papers, finding his way by instinct, not sight or touch, to the blown-out window. Once there, he launched into the cool blue space, soaring aflame into the buffeting wind. Ross was already gone - no longer the brother-in-law Vic had fished with, laughed with, clinked beer bottles with, mutually grouched about the wife/sister with - so it wasn't really Ross that morning who arced like an ember out of the tower.
He also loves words and word-play; for instance, he calls Gooding "Gooding Two Shoes." He is merciful, upfront, and stalwart - probably the closest thing this book comes to a "hero" figure.
3.) Captain Abe Shrinkle. This guy is a complete fuck-up, and is the source for all the other characters angst in the book, as they scramble to try and cover-up Shrinkle's incompetence and many mistakes. He is indecisive when he needs to act and makes stupid split-second decisions when he should be patient and think things through - resulting in more than one death and a lot of damage to military equipment. He's not exactly a comic character seeing as his ineptitude results in people dying once or twice, but he is a buffoon character who is swollen with his own self-importance and blind to the fact that he's a liability to everyone around him.
He's even terrified of the men and women under his command because he knows they hate and despise him.
He also does less dangerous, but still repulsive things like milk the care package system so he gets three or four boxes full of goodies everyday - which he hoards and doesn't share with anyone.
Shrinkle isn't stuck in one place, Abrams gives him an interesting story arc and I liked seeing what kind of trouble he was going to get in next, while at the same time feeling disgust for him and all his thoughts and actions.
4.) Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad is another "comic" character - a fat, weak coward who suffers from nosebleeds and writes simpering letters full of lies to his religious, controlling mother back in Tennessee. These letters are funny to the reader because Harkleroad fills them with false stories about being brave and saving people - when in reality he never leaves the base and is a sniveling moron.
This character isn't as funny or as layered as Shrinkle, and I feel like Abrams came down a little too heavy on making this character weak and cowardly, bloated with self-importance, pathetic dreams of glory, and an obsession with food. This is more of a caricature than a real man.
5.) Sergeant Brock Lumley - a brave, decisive soldier who works under the moron Shrinkle.
There are two female soldiers that Abrams lightly focuses on: Private First Class Allison Anderson and Specialist Cinnamon Carnicle. He only paints subdued character studies of these women, but doesn't really try to get in their heads - which I appreciate. Better to back off and not try to write a woman's perspective if you are going to screw it up. Some male authors can write great female character POVs etc., but most can't - and if you can't I'd rather you do the smart thing and stick with what you know than attempt a female POV, get it horrendously wrong, and make me angry with you. Props to Abrams for knowing his own strengths and weaknesses.
I feel like Abrams treats the female soldiers with nothing but respect and good humor. He did a great job in this book of making female soldiers present and real.
There are two points in the book where Abrams writes from the POV of an inanimate object: once a robot that works for the explosive unit, and once a mortar shell that is launched by terrorists and is seeking to destroy human flesh. I found these intervals interesting and well written.
In summary - a very enjoyable book. Abrams doesn't mute or downplay the horrors of war (this isn't a rampant comedy) but he has a dry, delightful sense of humor that pokes fun at army bureaucracy and some of the more ridiculous aspects of army life.
Definitely disappointed with Fobbit. Mildly amusing and insightful Iraq observations for the first two chapters, but then it just begins to tell the same thing over and over. There's no central inciting incident or storyline to drive the pages. Worst, the characters are all treated with an equal and baffling mild authorial disdain or contempt. I get the fact that 'Fobbits' are the lowest of the low with their timidness and desk jobs (I understood this after it was TOLD to me in the very first line of the book), but I'm surprised there are no alternate angles of courage or wisdom to balance things out and give the story some dimension. Instead we get Gooding, Shrinkle and Harkleroad, each more pathetic than the next doing their level best to act mousy and ridiculous in scene after embarrassing scene. It almost feels like Abrams wrote the book as lengthy school-yard revenge against forces or individuals who had wronged him over the years. It may be successful on that level, but (IMO) not as piece of reporting or literature or storytelling.
This brilliant, powerfully rendered debut seizes you by the collar; spits, shouts, whispers and laughs in your ear, drags you through the sweat, pus, blood and grit of war in Iraq, 2005, and ultimately pulls every string in your heart to reveal at its core, as only a true classic war story can, the insanity of humans desperately battling the inanity of mayhem and violence. Explosive and ironic, sandstorms kicking up from the pages will land in your teeth. This novel was written in surround sound and 3-D vision.--A 360 degree experience. Abrams rips away every kind of mask to give those of us, safe at home, a glimpse of the truth.
While often praised as hilarious I didn't it find it so funny. Sure there were parts that were mildly funny but over all felt the heft of the characters plight and its themes.
Overall I'd say I enjoyed it more than I did The Yellow Birds but not as much as I did Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.
I think this book capped off the reading of the other two books nicely and now feel like I can take a bit of a break from reading about the Iraq war. I am happy that all three of these recently published books took on the Iraq War, with the closeness and truthfulness that fiction allows.