Fobbit is light on its feet, all too accessible, and piercing in its humor and horror.
First published in 2012, there’s nothing about Fobbit that feels dated. I have a searing hunch the scenes are being replayed in Afghanistan right this minute.
The opening sucks you right in.
“They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph.”
We quickly meet the ‘Fobbitiest’ of these marshmallows. He is Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., the heart of soul of this novel. “With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier. The smell of something sweet radiated off his skin—as if he bathed in gingerbread.”
Gooding works in public relations. His job is to tell stories. His job is to tell a carefully managed version of the blood and mayhem out there beyond the marbled palace wall of the FOB, which once served as the home for Saddam Hussein. His job is to turn sucking chest wounds and dismemberments “into something palatable.”
Even better? “Something patriotic.” The war is being managed, for public consumption, through storytelling.
Fobbit, as others have pointed out, is a book consumed with words, tone, and getting the message right. Layers of bureaucracy, and grueling scrutiny, go into every syllable released to the big wide world, even if journalists beat them to the facts on the scene. Abrams, who served for twenty years in the U.S. Army and who was deployed to Iraq as part of a public relations team in 2005, takes us inside the surreal FOB bubble, where the soldiers can almost pretend they are home, with internet connections, entertainment, good food, air conditioning and occasional hookups (if you’re not opposed to a porta potty setting). And he takes us outside, too, to the war around Baghdad, the land of “Lose-Lose,” through the eyes of several other central characters including the forthright Lt. Col. Vic Duret, the poser Capt. Abe Shrinkle, and the bumbling Lt. Col. Eustace “Stacie” Harkleroad. (Shrinkle and Harkleroad, in particular, are surname choices worthy of Vonnegut or Dickens and demonstrate Abrams’ fine touch.)
This brilliant novel folds in diary entries, letters home, detailed press releases and telephone calls. Every exchange comes across like an opportunity alter—mostly, cushion—the harsh reality. Nobody gets hurt. Everything is okay. Fables, lies, tall tales. Sanitize, pasteurize, tone it down.
However, the war is very real. It’s out there. No matter the relative creature comforts inside the FOB cocoon, people die. Soldiers. Civilians. Terrorists. Superior officers, too. It’s no joke, however, when it comes time to deciding the name of the official 2,000th fatality. Abrams milks this benchmark moment for all the delicious irony he can squeeze out of it.
Harkleroad “prayed to God that Number Two Thousand wouldn’t be just another bland, run-of-the-mill death—blah-blah patrol struck an IED in the neighborhood of blah-blah, killing Private Joe Blah-Blah.”
When the death of the 2,000th doesn’t meet the necessary standards for glory, well, it’s yet another opportunity for “dexterously glossing over” the facts. The death in question hits particularly close to home, but the emotional fallout is about as deep as the PR problem (er, opportunity). Perhaps the word exercise, managing the story itself, provides what’s needed the most: denial about the random brutality of war.
Fobbit is satire, but how much of this novel is really a stretch? We hope the answer is “most” as we suspect the real answer might be “none.” And that’s the most frightening thing of all.
(Final note: I listened to Fobbit on audio and the narration by David Drummond was terrific. Highly recommended.)