David Abrams – Fobbit

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.

Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding is the most fobbit-y of all the fobbits. He works for the Army Press Office, which is located in one of Saddam’s former palaces, and spends his days tapping out press releases to try to turn the latest army disaster into something that the American public can read about while eating their breakfast cereal. Another soldier who would spend every day at the FOB if he could is Captain Abe Shrinkle, but unfortunately for him he’s in charge of a platoon of troops. Shrinkle trembles at any encounter with the enemy and in his trailer hoards hundreds of care packages that he orders online in false names – he has enough baby-wipes, Twinkies, foot powder, and erotic letters from bored housewives to last him a lifetime. When Shrinkle makes a series of ill-judged tactical decisions, he ends up in front of his commanding officers, and Gooding has his work cut out trying to make everything smell like roses. And that’s just the start of the bad news.

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.

Fobbit, being mainstream satiric fiction, is not my usual fare, but I love M*A*S*H, so the blurb caught my attention when Stefan (Civilian Reader) mentioned picking this up at BEA and I decided to ask for an ARC on Netgalley. I’m glad I did. While the book wasn’t completely what I expected – I’d expected satire but not this biting – it was a quick and entertaining read.

The miniature community of a military compound in a combat zone magnifies human character traits, both the good and the bad. Fobbit, being a satire, tends to focus on the bad and ignoble; none of the characters are heroic, only a few are at all likeable, though perhaps some of them are uncomfortably relatable. Shrinkle and Harkleroad are downright awful. Neither of them shows much character growth; in fact their development is rather to their detriment. Shrinkle goes from a well-meaning but misguided klutz to an outright delusional liar and Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad, Harkleroad is a self-aggrandizing, dishonest incompetent. His emails home to his mother are both funny and deeply sad. I liked Lieutenant Colonel Duret and Sergeant Lumley, who seem to be cast in a far more positive light due to their active combat status. Both of them are shown to struggle with their experiences – Duret flees in fantasies of his wife and dog any time the stress gets to be too much and he is plagued by the memory of his brother-in-law who died during the 9/11 attacks – but both do the best they can despite their fears. Gooding is actually an okay guy, despite his not always very brave inner monologue, he’s not a bad guy, just one who is out of his depth and mentally bruised and battered by all the death and tragedy he gets across his desk.

The story is told through chapters with alternating viewpoints. Within these chapters we find not only straightforward narrative, but also emails, letters and diary extracts from Gooding’s diary. These extracts were my favourite, as their tone seemed sincere and somehow smoother. They formed almost a calm place inside the nervous action of the narrative. There are some passages written from the viewpoint of inanimate objects. While the first of these, from the EOD squad robot, was interesting and not as jarring, because it’s easy to anthropomorphise a robot, the later ones, especially the mortar one, just came across as gimmicky and contrived. I also struggled with the extensive use of TLA’s, though this may be because as a non-native English speaking civilian American military acronyms are largely unfamiliar to me. I liked that Abrams acknowledged the difficulties civilians have understanding these acronyms tacitly when he has Gooding coach a soldier on how to conduct an interview with the press, instructing him to avoid TLA’s as civilians won’t understand.

Despite my problems with some of the elements of the book, I did enjoy the writing and especially the dialogue. There was a lot of banter, especially between the combat troops, which was very enjoyable. Abrams creates distinctive voices for the different main characters; I was never confused as to whose viewpoint we were following at any given time. The humour is bleak, sarcastic and bordering on cynical, it’s gallows humour of the kind that forces itself to laugh to keep from crying or going mad. The book paints a dark picture of how hard it is to get through a tour unscathed mentally if not physically; it’s a sad tale of war, wrapped in a blanket of wry laughter. While funny the book is also thought-provoking as you wonder how much is true and how much satirical hyperbole. It also deepens respect for those men and women – of any nationality – who not only decide to step up and serve, but sign on for return tours as well.

The book is an easy read on a hard subject, but the end, when it came, was abrupt and rather disheartening, but that fit the tale that Abrams has spun the reader with Fobbit perfectly. I enjoyed Fobbit and read it in three sittings. As pointed out above, I did have my problems with it, but in the end Fobbit was an entertaining and thought-provoking read. The book is published by Grove Atlantic under their Black Cat imprint and will be released on September 4th.

The book was provided for review by the publisher.