“We double-time across Baghdad on our twelve feet, a mutant dozen-legged beetle dashing from rock to rock, confident in its shell but always careful of the soft belly underneath.”
One of the bravest of the brave deeds in “Brave Deeds” may be the daring decision to narrate the book in the first person plural. Six American soldiers have slipped off their base to make an unauthorized appearance at the memorial service of one of their number. But when their vehicle breaks down in the middle of Baghdad, they find themselves on a wild adventure of life, death, and most things in between.
The use of the “we” form for the narration could have been profoundly irritating, but Abrams makes it work. Each of the six soldiers is in fact a unique individual, and gets at least one chapter of his own in which is his story is told, but from the perspective of the omniscient “we.” The effect is somewhat reminiscent of the omniscient narrative style of many 18th and 19th century novels, in which the narrator and the reader are joined in watching the characters from the outside, but it also sets up the characters as a single group, united against the outside world even as they fight amongst themselves. Although I can’t see this succeeding in every book, for this particular story it is both attention-grabbing and effective.
It also highlights one of the features I’ve noticed in contemporary war writing: the uneasy push-pull between trying to reach out to others in order to create an emotional connection with them, and the desire to assert the narrator as the possessor of a particular kind of knowledge and pain that only others who have been through what he’s been through (funnily enough it’s almost alway a he) can understand. Only, as “Brave Deeds” shows, even soldiers experiencing the exact same conditions are all having different experiences, and the “we” of the us-against-them group is still made up of an only semi-coherent group of individuals.
Readers looking for an exciting war story should not, however, be turned off by these musings: “Brave Deeds” is full of the kind of action you’d expect from an American war novel, full of the lingo, the mistakes, the strangers-in-a-hot country, and, of course, the thoughts of porn. Honestly, what is it with American war stories and porn? If the books are to be believed, it’s a wonder the US military manages to function at all, as you’d think its members would be unable to fire their weapons, their wrists long since seized up from excessive self-gratification. It’s so bad sometimes I have to go read a story of torture in Chechnya just to act as a palate cleanser.
Anyway, that was more of a side note about American war writing in general rather than a criticism of this book, which by American standards has relatively little porn. What it does have is a cleverly constructed plot that ratchets up the tension until the death-and-life denouement. Definitely a must-read for those interested in contemporary American war literature.
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