by David Abrams, recommended by Grove/Atlantic
EDITOR’S NOTE by Peter Blackstock
When you’re an editorial assistant, it’s not always easy to get hold of good material. But I was lucky to be the first person in-house to read David Abrams’s debut novel, Fobbit, which arrived in the inbox of my boss (Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin), when he was away on vacation in August 2011.
The pitch was intriguing: a novel of the Iraq war, but not a solemn, intense war novel, this was a satire. It was dark — very dark in places — and had the gory scenes and sense of futility you’d expect from a novel dealing with one of the most absurd wars in U.S. history, but it managed to bring a completely new perspective to what is a very televised and written-about war. It gave a window into the offices of the Army bureaucrats, the so-called “Fobbits” who never venture out of the safe confines of the Army’s Forward Operating Bases. The author himself had served in Iraq as part of an Army public affairs team, so it wasn’t surprising that the book rang true. With its distinct voice and scenes that brought home the absurdity of this war — and war in general — in a more direct and more funny way than anything else I’d ever read, I knew that this was a winner.
At 190,000 words, the book was rather long, but I could see a leaner, meaner version of the book hiding inside, and found out that the author was also very much on board with helping it “lose the excess pounds,” as he put it. So I pushed to acquire it — my first acquisition as an editor, and a great project for me to cut my editorial teeth on.
The central character in the novel is a bookish guy called Chance Gooding, a Fobbit who spends his days writing press releases and making PowerPoint presentations, sequestered in a cubicle in one of Saddam’s former palaces. As David puts it, the Fobbits are “in the war but not of the war” — although they’re able to pop to the gym for a workout, or grab a Frappuccino at the on-base Starbucks, the potential for death is just a mortar blast away.
My favorite scenes in the novel — the scene excerpted here is one of them — show the disconnect between the politically correct, cliché-ridden discourse of the official communications from the public affairs team at the FOB, and the very real and unpleasant dangers of the war outside the base that they’re describing. It’s a disconnect that’s ridiculous but also profoundly tragic, and a tough line to tread — as Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes said: “It is the rare writer who can step outside of himself and see with cold clarity the humor and pathos of his situation and then bring the reader to the same understanding. David Abrams is such a writer.”
Assistant Editor, Grove/Atlantic
IN HIS CUBICLE, Gooding sat holding his forehead in one hand. The glow of his Qatar tan was already starting to fade.
He was depressed because he’d just hung up the phone after learning one of their moneymakers had been hit with an IED, which had sheared off the lower half of his left leg. This meant Staff Sergeant Gooding would have to reschedule all the media opportunities he’d lined up for the guy, a specialist named Kyle Pilley. The specialist’s moneymaker days were over.
That was Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad’s term for them: moneymakers. These were the soldiers caught at the crossroads of luck and bravery, the door kickers who rose to the occasion and did something true and honorable in the eyes of the U.S. Army, who participated in moments of selfless action that could then be packaged into a heart-stirring story and delivered to the media.
Maybe it was shielding a little schoolgirl from the blast of a suicide bomber, taking the brunt of the shrapnel, which embeds in your flak vest but doesn’t kill you, just leaving a nasty set of green-brown bruises.
Maybe it was befriending a Local National, a down-on-his-luck restaurant owner plagued with vandalism and robbery, someone in whom you take a personal interest and so you bring your squad back to the restaurant and spend your week’s one half-day off scrubbing away the graffiti. Still on your own time, maybe you set up a guard shift at night to catch the Sunni bastards who are doing this to the poor guy, and forever earn the Local National’s gratitude, winning his heart and mind.
Or maybe, like Specialist Kyle Pilley, you are shot at close range by a sniper’s bullet and you bounce right back up onto your feet and, still sucking at oxygen you just thought was lost to you forever, you give chase to the would-be assassins, tackle them in a back alley, zip-cuff the bastards, and bring them to justice.
If, as in Kyle Pilley’s case, the entire episode is filmed by the insurgents from their hiding place in the back of a van — the resulting footage intended for a propaganda “victory music video” loaded onto the jihadists’ website that afternoon but instead played and replayed by CNN in the ensuing days — well then that’s just icing on the gravy as far as Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad was concerned.
Kyle Pilley was one of the best moneymakers the division had seen in the past six months and Harkleroad was practically piddling his pants with glee at the thought of all the goodwill his story would buy them in the mainstream media. He was already laying plans for Pilley to be interviewed, via remote satellite, by the Big Three morning-breakfast news shows (Good Morning America was on board, Today and CBS This Morning were teetering on the brink of a yes), not to mention features in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and, if Harkleroad was really, really lucky, Time and/or Newsweek. Yes, Kyle Pilley was the best thing to happen to Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad and the rest of the Shamrock Division since they’d entered Iraq.
First, however, Specialist Pilley needed the short course in Media Interview Tips 101, the preparatory briefing the Public Affairs Office liked to give to all soldiers, from colonel to private, before they spoke to major news outlets. A week before Gooding’s Qatar vacation, Harkleroad had given him this task because, he reasoned, the specialist might be more receptive to a lecture coming from an NCO than he would from a lieutenant colonel.
“The first thing you have to remember,” Gooding told the twenty-year-old infantryman after he’d brought him into his cubicle and sat him down, “is that you are in control of the interview, not the reporter. This is your story and you’re going to tell it in the way that feels most comfortable to you — with a little coaching from us, of course. We’re here to help you smooth it out and make it sound more dramatic for the folks back home.”
Pilley, a nervous kid with hair the color of bread crusts, wiped his hands on his pants, licked his lips, and croaked, “Sure.”
“Take your time and don’t just blurt out the first thing that comes into your head.”
“Okay.” Pilley tried to loosen something in his throat with an abrupt cough.
“So … just a few questions to start off with.” Gooding went down the list on his clipboard. “Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor?”
“Have you ever been involved in a bitter divorce or a nasty child custody dispute?”
“Any paternity suits pending?”
“None that I know of.”
“Were you ever sent to the principal’s office?”
“Once, but it was totally not my fault, what they said I did.”
“Have you ever touched a member of the opposite sex in an inappropriate way so they would have cause to file charges against you?”
“Hey, what is this, anyway?” Pilley’s eyes flicked around the cubicle, expecting McKnight from his squad to jump out any minute and yell, “Ha! You’ve been punk’d!”
Gooding waved a not-to-worry hand through the air. “Just trying to shine a light on any shadowy areas of your life. We like to get there before the media does. So, what about it — any inappropriate sexual touching?”
“No. No way.”
“Okay, fine. Now, to the matter at hand. Have you ever been interviewed by a member of the mainstream media?”
“Does my high school newspaper count?”
“Then I guess the answer is no. Never talked to no media person before.”
“Here are some of the things you need to know.” Gooding handed Pilley a card, laminated to slip smoothly into and out of his wallet, with a bulleted list of do’s and don’ts.
Pilley stared at the card like it had the answers to the algebra final exam. He licked his white lips and coughed multiple times.
• Do sit up straight in the chair
• Do wear glasses if you can’t see without them
• Do use frequent but natural hand gestures
• Do smile (when appropriate)
• Do look concerned and sincere (when appropriate)
• Do take every opportunity to “tell the Army story”
• Don’t speculate about things you don’t know (“Stay in your lane!!”)
• Don’t tap dance around difficult questions
• Don’t roll or shift your eyes
• Don’t let the reporter put words in your mouth
• Don’t conduct the interview on an empty stomach
• Don’t consume flatulence-producing foods (beans, raw vegetables, et cetera) twelve hours prior
• Don’t give vivid descriptions of “kills” that may be shocking to nonmilitary individuals
• Don’t ever forget: “We are WINNING the Global War on Terrorism”
“You need to avoid acronyms and military jargon at all costs,” Gooding continued when Pilley finished reading the card. “Mr. and Mrs. America will have no idea what you’re talking about if they start hearing alphabet soup coming out of your mouth — even the things we in the Army take for granted, like APC, RPG, BCT, TOC. To Joe Six-Pack, it’s all gibberish.”
“No alphabet soup, got it,” Pilley affirmed.
“Stay positive, to the degree that you can. We want you to convey the impression we’re ahead of the power curve over here, that we’re making progress in restoring hope to the Iraqi people, that nothing’s gonna slow us down from achieving our goals — the nation’s goals.”
“The United States, of course. We can’t speak for the Iraqis themselves. Remember that. One of the tips you’ll find on that little card — one of our cardinal rules — is ‘Stay in your lane.’ Don’t go outside the boundaries of what you know for a fact. Our rule of thumb is: if you work on it, own it, drive it, or fire it, then you can talk about it. Otherwise, don’t let the reporter trap you into saying something you’re gonna regret.”
“Believe me, we’ve had more than one soldier — officers, especially — who didn’t stay in their lanes over here and we’ve had to clean up after them.”
Pilley looked like the kind of soldier — earnest, honest, puppy doggish — who wouldn’t wander out of his lane even if his life depended on it. He seemed to be hanging on Gooding’s every word. Oh, man, Gooding thought, Harkleroad is gonna love this guy like a son.
“So, let’s get down to it,” Gooding said. “Tell me about the incident.”
“This is the part where I tell my story?”
“Right. Just imagine I’m a reporter asking the questions. But remember, try not to squint under the lights. And don’t look directly into the camera.”
Pilley gave a dubious glance at the invisible camera over Staff Sergeant Gooding’s left shoulder and nodded.
“Well, for starters, I wasn’t supposed to live. That’s why they were filming me. For training purposes, to show other hajjis — ”
“Uh, careful,” Gooding said. “We’d prefer you avoided the term hajji. Try terrorist instead.”
“What about bloodthirsty, heartless ragheads? Couldn’t I just say that?”
Pilley was starting to loosen up — that was good … but Gooding couldn’t let him get too far ahead of himself. “For now, we need to stick with terrorists.”
“So, anyway,” Pilley giving the noncamera another sidelong glance, “the terrorists were recording the whole thing for training purposes. I was supposed to die. No doubt about it. And I would have, if they’d aimed a little higher, gone for the head shot. I guess I ruined things when I got back up on my feet.”
“Let’s say popped back up or bounced back up. The more vivid, the better.”
“Who’s telling this story, anyway?” (Uh-oh, signs of strong personality emerging. Mental note: check on this guy’s medical history.)
“You are, of course,” Gooding said, “but we’re encouraging you to use as many colorful details as possible. If you want to get a sound bite on TV, it needs to be vivid. Now, let’s start at the beginning. It was a hot day — ”
“Hot as hell. Am I allowed to say hell on TV?”
“We wouldn’t encourage it. Try something like, ‘It was so hot you could fry eggs on the hood of our Humvee.’ ”
“That doesn’t sound like me.”
“Then say it however you like. I’m only here to offer suggestions. In the end, the words are your own.”
“Okay.” Whatever had flared up in Pilley seemed to be fading. He was back to licking his white lips.
“So,” Gooding continued, “it was hot as all get-out and your unit was working a security checkpoint and you were just going about your job, minding your own business, when this happened, right?”
“Yep, minding my own business. Thinking about how my mom used to cook me flapjacks every Saturday morning — ”
“Let’s not mention that — the fact that your mind was wandering. We want to convey the impression our soldiers over here are totally focused on the mission. Anyway, go on. Sorry to interrupt.”
“So, yeah, we’d been working this checkpoint just outside the wire for most of the afternoon. Me, Corporal Allen, and Private McKnight. Our mission was to slow traffic as it approached the West Entry Control Point. We weren’t stopping any of the cars, just standing out there, making sure they saw us in full battle rattle with our M4s. It was one of those random checkpoints we set up and tear down in different places around our AO — ”
Gooding held up a finger. “Careful with the acronyms.”
“Right, sorry. Around our area of operations.”
“Anyway, we’d been out there for about three hours already and we were almost at the point of packing it up. Corporal Allen was just waiting for the word to come over the radio. He was sitting inside the Humvee where it was cooler — we were taking turns rotating in and out of the Humvee — and McKnight was standing on the other side across from me. All of a sudden, it’s like I get punched in the chest and I’m knocked flat on my ass — on my butt, I mean. I lay there on the ground for about two seconds, trying to catch my breath, and all of a sudden I realize, Holy crap! I’ve been shot! I’ve been hit in the freaking chest! Freaking’s okay, right?”
“Perfectly. Not sure about crap, though.”
“No crap. Ten-four. So, at that point, the only thing going through my mind was to take cover and try to locate the sniper’s position. So right away I’m back up on my feet — I bounce back up to my feet — and I’m yelling at McKnight to take cover, take cover! He and Corporal Allen didn’t even have a fu — freaking clue at that point. They hadn’t seen me get hit, that’s how fast it all happened. So we all hunker down in a protective posture and it didn’t take me long to figure out the shot came from my twelve o’clock. We look across the intersection and there’s a white van parked about seventy-five meters away. I’m having a hard time breathing at this point and there’s a little bit of blood on my vest. McKnight points at my hand and says, They got you, Pilley, they got you. That’s when the pain kicks in, when McKnight says something. I look down and there’s half my thumb gone. From what the doctors tell me, my thumb saved my life. Never thought I’d say that, but it’s true.”
Pilley held up his thickly bandaged hand for the invisible camera. Gooding could smell old blood and iodine rolling in fumes off the bandage.
“My freaking thumb saved my life. Evidently, I had been raising my hand to scratch at something on my face when they fired. The bullet hit my thumb at just the right angle so it just ricocheted off my flak vest. I got bruised and lost half my thumb, but nothing else. I got a picture here, if they want to use it.” He awkwardly reached with his left hand into a shirt pocket, pulled out a creased photo, and handed it to Gooding. There was Pilley, bare-chested, his sparse chest hairs swirled by his sweat, and just above his left nipple was a bruise the size and shape of a teacup. He was holding up his bandaged hand and grinning like the lucky freaking fool he was.
“We’ll want to scan a copy of this photo, if that’s all right.”
“No problem. That’s why I brought it.”
“So, back to the story. According to reports I read, the terrorists were hiding in the van, which they’d lined with bed mattresses in order to muffle the sound of their sniper rifle — ”
“A Dragunov,” Pilley said.
“They’d drilled a hole in the side of the van just big enough for the shooter to get you in his sights.”
“Right. And the other guy was filming the whole thing from the driver’s seat. You can hear them on the tape praying to Allah the whole time they’re lining me up in the sights. Then, when I get hit and fall down, they’re singing and high-fiving each other. But all that stops when I bounce back up on my feet and run around to the other side of the Humvee. Then it’s almost like you can hear them say, Uh-oh. I don’t know what the Iraqi word for Oops is, but I’m sure they were saying it.” Pilley’s grin turned into a chuckle.
“Then you start pointing at the van and they really start to panic, right?”
“Right. That’s about the time they drop the camera and all you see is the roof of the van, and then the camera’s rolling around on the floor as they punch the accelerator and try to get out of there. But they don’t get very far because traffic is backed up at the intersection. Everyone had slowed down to watch when I got shot and then right away popped back up on my feet.”
“And so they’re stuck in traffic and your team does what?”
“Since we now have confirmed eyes on the target, we decide to pursue and engage.”
“Just as you’ve been taught by the Army to do.”
“Right. Anyway, Corporal Allen radios back to headquarters to make them aware of what’s happened and all three of us pile into the Humvee and start to go after ole hajji. The terrorists, I mean.”
“Good, good. You’re catching on.” Gooding could hear the ka-ching! of this new moneymaker.
“We go about half a block and McKnight tells us he’s got a clear line of sight, so we tell him to go for it, and he tries to shoot out one of the van’s tires but, instead, he hits one of the terrorists. Turns out it was the sniper himself. By that time, they’ve run up into the traffic jam and can’t go anywhere — forward or back, since we’re right on their ass — tail, I mean. So then, right there in the middle of the intersection, we see them pile out of the van — there’s two of them — and start to run up a nearby alley. We all go after them and Corporal Allen gets one guy pretty quick — a classic linebacker tackle — but the other guy, the wounded one, is a little faster. We chase him all the way down the alley, then he ducks inside this house — I guess it was an apartment building — and runs up this long flight of stairs. We’re following him pretty close and it’s not too hard because he’s leaving a blood trail the whole way. As he climbs, he starts to get a little slower. McKnight winged him right under the armpit and hit a pretty big vein, so he’s losing a lot of blood. Me, I’m just getting faster and faster, all that adrenaline, I guess, and pretty soon I’m right up behind him and he knows it’s all over because he just stops and sits down on the stairs, puts his hands on his head. But then the blood starts really pumping out of his wound and he passes out and rolls down the stairs, right at me, and I have to jump out of the way. He ends up on the landing one flight down and now the blood’s coming pretty fast out of this guy. So I grab my dressing kit out of my cargo pocket, rip it open, and slap it on this guy.”
“Let me get this straight,” Gooding said. “You took your own bandage — the one other soldiers are supposed to use on you when you get hit — and you put it on the very guy who had tried to kill you ten minutes earlier?”
“Yeah, I guess I wasn’t even thinking about any of that. I just saw a guy with a hole in his armpit and I knew I needed to help him, no matter who he was.”
“Dude, this is a great story,” Gooding said in a half-shout that carried across three cubicles. His heart was pounding hard and he could only imagine the moist state of Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad’s underwear when he heard about this moneymaker. “I can’t see anything but good news coverage coming from it. It’s all about love thy enemy and so on.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Pilley said. “I wasn’t even thinking about any of that. I was just all reflex — bam, bam, bam — it all happened so fast. And then there was my thumb to think about, of course.”
“Of course,” Gooding agreed. “I tell you, the media is gonna eat you up with a spoon. You need to be ready for that.”
“Sure,” Pilley said. He, too, was now jazzed with adrenaline from the retelling. He was already starting to wonder if he would get one of those babes from CNN to do the interview and what she would think of him. Eating him up with a spoon sounded like a good thing. He grinned, but then caught himself and tried to look all patriotic and shit for this staff sergeant sitting across from him. “It’s no problem, really. My company commander said I should go around telling the story as much as I could. If nothing else, to give hajji a kick in the nuts, right?”
Gooding looked up from his clipboard, unamused. Pilley wiped the grin off his face. “Sorry, guess you don’t want to hear it.”
“Hey,” Gooding said, “it’s not me who doesn’t want to hear. Just remember about Mr. and Mrs. America — heck, your own parents — sitting in their living room watching you over their morning toast and eggs. What you say needs to reflect proudly on the Army. I don’t think nuts is exactly what we’re looking for.”
“Okay, got it. No nuts. I’ll even try to keep balls out of it.” Specialist Pilley started gathering his things to go. Gooding clapped Pilley on the shoulder before he left the cubicle. “Like I said, America’s gonna love you.”
Pilley laughed and there was a gleam in his eye that was one part eagerness to sniff a CNN babe’s hair and one part bemusement at all the fuss everyone was making over him, Kyle Pilley, war hero.
When he’d gone, Gooding started typing up his notes for Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad.
Now, two short weeks later, it had all gone bad in an instant and Gooding was feeling the roots of depression take hold.
The Delta Company commander had just called the PAO cell to let them know there was bad news concerning Specialist Pilley. While out on patrol yesterday, Pilley’s Humvee had run over an IED. The force of the blast split the Humvee into two pieces. The engine block landed a hundred yards away in someone’s backyard. One soldier was killed, two others injured. One of the injured was Pilley: leg blown clean off below the knee. He was on his way to a hospital in Germany and wouldn’t be returning to the combat theater of operations. The whole company was devastated by the news because they all loved the guy who’d been killed, but they were especially upset about Pilley. He’d seemed — what was the word? impervious? — to whatever the enemy tried to throw at them. Bounce-Back Man, they’d called him. The captain thought PAO should know about Pilley because of all the interviews they’d been lining up for the boy.
Gooding wanted to ask why in the world the company had sent their most valuable moneymaker out on patrol before he’d even started doing his obligated rounds on the media circuit. But what was the use? Dead was dead, injured was injured. There was no bringing back Specialist Kyle Pilley.