Monday, September 17, 2012

Fobbit: War Is Hell(ishly funny)!

Should Iraqi suicide bombers be called "insurgents" or "terrorists" in the official Army press releases? Why? And what's the big deal anyway?

It's Baghdad in 2005, and these are just a few of the many questions, often of increasing absurdity, the Public Affairs Officers (PAO) of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Triumph must concern themselves with in David Abrams alternatingly hilarious and heart-attack serious debut novel Fobbit.

"Fobbit," as is explained right there on the cover, is a derogatory name for the paper-pushers who work at the base in Baghdad, but who don't see combat. They still have to carry their guns around with them, though.

The funny parts in this novel (which is told from the alternating points of views of several characters) are mostly from the point of view of the Fobbits. Exhibit A is Eustice Harkleroad (called Stacie) — he's the chief PAO, and the patsy for the whole base. He's a nose-bleeding nervous nelly who always has state- and country-shaped food stains on his uniform. He's also a momma's boy who writes hilarious emails home to his mother with wildly exaggerated claims of his exploits. In one memorable instance, in a case of such comic earnestness the reader can't help but laugh out loud (which I did!), he tells his mother, "A hero never yawns, after all."

Harkleroad's charge is one Chance Gooding, really the only "normal" person in the story. Gooding spends his days writing and re-writing press releases, dealing with annoying journalists, and writing a journal about his experiences.

Of course, we also get stories from regular soldiers, like Abe Shrinkle, an incompetent, indecisive moron, and Lt. Colonel Vic Duret, his commander who is constantly exasperated with Shrinkle and wants nothing more than to go home to his wife with her big, pillowy breasts. The war scenes are the not-so-funny, but still-riveting parts. Right at the beginning, there's a scene in which an Iraqi has tried to run his bomb-laden car into the back of a tank, but the bomb doesn't explode, and Shrinkle is left wondering what to do about the injured suicide bomber who's trapped in his crumpled car. His indecisiveness costs him the respect of his men and Duret. And he didn't have much of their respect in the first place, evidenced by the fact that, earlier, somebody had pooped in his helmet.

On the whole, I loved this book. The only thing that gives me pause — and it's not unique to Fobbit, but in any war story in which a moron has a position of authority — is to wonder how someone who is so incompetent (like Harkleroad and Shrinkle) ever could've gotten to their posts as leaders of men? Didn't someone recognize earlier on that they were idiots, and decline to promote them? Abrams mentioned on his blog that the novel as it came into the world was about half as long as he originally wrote it, so some of that may have been explored in pages that wound up on the cutting room floor. Or maybe it's just a nit-pick.

At any rate, Fobbit definitely deserves its spot on the "latest and best" war novels list. Four stars, and highly recommended!


  1. getting ready to read this for book club. Looking forward to it! A little different subject for us to explore.

    1. I'll be interested to hear what you all think of it. Yeah, it's not exactly what you think when you think "Book Club Book," but that's meant in a nice way. :)

  2. I have not heard of this title before, but I'm curious now as I was a PAO in the U.S. Navy for quite a few years. I'm curious how "true to life" this perspective would be - obviously, it's going to be satirical but all humor is based on truth. :-)

    And yes, morons slip through the nets everywhere. :-}

    1. I'm pretty sure Abrams himself was a PAO officer (a Fobbit himself), so hopefully you'll think it rings true. I'd definitely be interested to hear your take!