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.
"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 Quixote, 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.
I'm thinking about re-reading this. Not only am I constantly recommending it to people IRL, but it's still relevant today. Great book.
I'll be honest. I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I already knew David Abrams to be a phenomenal writer. And I'd read the glowing reviews and blurbs for this novel and was quick to buy it. But..."an Iraq war comedy"?
But once I began reading, I became engrossed in this story and these ragtag Fobbits. Abrams immerses you in this world. The writing flows seamlessly with sharp dialogue and quick cuts. Abrams knows where to linger and where to just touch base and move on. All the many characters jump off the page they are so alive. And the book is undeniably funny.
Then, there are these moments:
"Chance stared at the TV screens. Al-Arabiya TV was showing footage from the scene. Bodies were stacked like cordwood along the pavement. Some were covered with sheets, some were draped in tarps of gold foil (perhaps some building material dug out of the trash nearby). When they ran out of materials to use, mourners just pulled shirts up over the dead faces. Still, as the camera panned along the sidewalk morgue, the breeze lifted the corners of the blankets and the gold foil and the dead looked at Gooding through the camera--the open mouths with their teeth dirtied by river water, the rolled-back eyes, the knitted brows, the look of confusion. A young boy in a T-shirt, flies walking across his eyeballs, reached out his arms for his mother, her face up on the bridge rapidly receding from his field of vision. The camera panned. The buckled limbs, the splayed feet, the hundreds and hundreds of shapeless mounds beneath the sheets: it was almost too much for Gooding to bear."
I can't recommend this novel enough. Or anything that Abrams writes for that matter. I look forward to whatever comes next from this author.
In the spirit of openess, I never served, never tried to join, and therefore cannot comment on the accuracy of this fictional account of behind-the-scenes operations in Baghdad. That being said, especially in the case of military-oriented books with a supposedly humorous spin, it really is unfair when writers are compared to the greats of the genre, largely the fault of publishers eager to ring up sales, and Abrams is no Joseph Heller, but this isn't a bad book and does approach things with somewhat the same angle (even making references to CATCH-22). However, it also didn't grab me or entertain me in the same way as the classic did. And although front-line soldiers do look down upon support staff, the book goes out of its way to denigrate their importance (and of course, this is fiction), as if most of them had a choice in where they were assigned. Besides, some people have to do these jobs in the radically different type of war and modern technological advances in communications and engagement. No doubt the characters portrayed are exaggerations of actual people (or more likely combinations of people), but still I wonder if they deserve the opprobrium. It is moderately amusing, and there are some enjoyable moments, but overall I wasn't too impressed. An average read.
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.
It took almost twenty years for the great World War Two books to start to appear; the same can be said for Vietnam books (to the extent that the books were set in Vietnam and not simply about the war, a la Catch-22). That means we can look forward to the first great Iraq War book in about ten years. In the meantime, we have David Abrams’ Fobbit.
Fobbit was for me an exercise in mixed feelings. Abrams nails the atmosphere, the places, the everyday life during a rear-area deployment in the Sandbox. I was briefly a fobbit-like creature in Qatar, which makes a cameo appearance partway through the book (the Topoff’s moved since you were there, Dave); I attended those meetings, I edited those PowerPoint slides, I read those SIGACTs, I sat in those operations centers with football or NASCAR on the big screen on Sundays. The rhythms of shifts in a windowless box, the inanities of staff work, the theme menus at the DFAC, the dusty little PX – been there, done that. All that part is spot-on.
However, some of the main caricatures (not a typo) pushed me out of the story. Fobbit has been compared to Catch-22, but the reason the latter has endured as one of the classic antiwar novels is that its characters, while tweaked, are essentially recognizable humans while the war and the system it engenders are the villains. Abrams, however, stocks his work with several major characters so grotesque that they can exist only as punching bags. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen an obese slob in uniform, far less an obese senior officer; I have to hope an infantry officer as spectacularly incompetent as Captain Shrinkle would’ve been weeded out before he pinned on his railroad tracks. Even the more solid characters – PR drudge SSG Gooding and battalion commander LTC Duret come to mind – fall into repetition of the qualities that make them types rather than humans. Ironically, Abrams’ secondary characters are more human and more believable than some of the major ones.
God knows there’s plenty to lampoon about our Iraq and Afghan misadventures. The constantly stirring spaghetti bowl that is HQ organization, the primacy of PowerPoint, the transplanted pieces of home that make the theater even more unreal, the ridiculous attempts by senior leadership to impose chaste wholesomeness on young men and women trained to be aggressive and physical, the drumbeat of the deployment calendar – these are the latest wrinkles on the human enterprise of war and make for great literary furniture. Fobbit touches on all of these, and more. But where Fobbit falls short – and what keeps us going back to Catch-22 and M*A*S*H and so on – is the story of how relatively normal people react to the stresses and absurdities of war. This is almost there, but it tries too hard and too many of its shots hit in the white.
Maybe in ten years we’ll get the Great Iraq War Book. Until then, you can give Fobbit a try. The self-satirizing world in which it’s set is as good a depiction as you’ll get, but keep a grain of salt or two for the characters.