January 4, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
David Abrams' Fobbit is an unforgettable and vivid satire of the Iraq war. By turns humorous and heartbreaking, but always smart, this is one of the year's finest literary debuts.
The New York Times Book Review wrote of the book:
"I applaud David Abrams for sticking to his vision and writing the satire he wanted to write instead of adding to the crowded shelf of war memoirs. In Fobbit, he has written a very funny book, as funny, disturbing, heartbreaking and ridiculous as war itself."
I was reading Catch-22 by Joseph Heller when I entered the combat zone, but it was U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb which played as the soundtrack for my 11-month deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. Just as in the Vietnam War, veterans will trip back to the jungles whenever they hear Hendrix, the Doors or Creedence, I'm taken back to the sand and heat when Bono counts down "Unos, dos, tres, catorce!"
Before flying to Baghdad, I spent six weeks in Kuwait as part of an advance party of soldiers who "pushed" the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division north into Iraq. I was new to war and didn't know what to make of it. U2 helped me get my head screwed on straight. Though none of their songs made it into the final draft of Fobbit, I owe a debt to Bono, the Edge, Adam, and Larry. Weeks before I was faced with the daily reports of roadside bombs and severed limbs, U2 was schooling me with what was to come: "The more you see the less you know/The less you find out as you go." By this point, I'd been in the Army for 17 years—a dedicated career soldier who was used to the soft life in stateside assignments. Much like my main character in Fobbit, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, I knew all about the politics of Army garrison life, but I didn't know jack shit about war. I was a "squared-away" soldier entering a conflict that was anything but squared-away. Even before I reported to Baghdad, I had the feeling it was a ragged-edged, frustrating, contradictory war—one which spiraled in its own "Vertigo."
The night is full of holes
There's bullets ripping sky
Of ink with gold
They twinkle as the boys
Play rock and roll
During the time I spent in the way-station of Kuwait, my buddies and I drove around in an NTV (non-tactical vehicle), which was the Army's term for a tricked-out Chevy Trailblazer, the color of gleaming midnight. U.S. military officials issued the civilian vehicles like rental cars so soldiers could drive around the host nation without looking like foreign threats roaring down streets in Humvees. Soon after we arrived at Camp Buehring (pronounced "Beering," though to our disappointment, there was no alcohol to be had) and we got our Trailblazer, my friend Ray went to the tiny post exchange and bought a handful of CDs—including How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. As we bounced around the rutted side roads between Kuwait City and the various Army encampments, we blasted that CD on a continuous loop until the words became part of us:
Lay it down
Lay down your guns
All you daughters of Zion
All your Abraham's sons
I don't know if I can take it
I'm not easy on my knees
It's my heart that you're breaking
We need some release, release, release
We need love and peace
Though I don't mention U2 in Fobbit, I can imagine Staff Sergeant Gooding listening to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and adopting it as his war anthem, just as I did in those early weeks of my deployment.
When it came time for us to leave Kuwait and head into the inevitability of war, we had to turn in our Trailblazer to the transportation officials in Kuwait. We washed the vehicle, made sure it had a full tank of gas, then handed the keys to the clerk on the other side of the counter. It wasn't until we'd returned to Camp Buehring and packed our gear for the C-130 trip to Baghdad that we realized How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was still in the Trailblazer's CD player. We were crushed, but at the time we had other things on our minds. Like, would we die in the next 10 months; or, if we survived, would we return in one piece with arms and legs intact?
That final night in Kuwait, I sat in a hangar at Ali Al Salem Air Base. I'd arrived there after an hour-long bus ride through the desert with the rest of the advance-party soldiers who were part of the "first in, last out" wave of 3rd ID troops. We'd finally turned our backs for good on Camp Buehring. We'd strapped on our flak vests, our helmets and we had our rifles in our right hands. This was it. No more halcyon days in Kuwait; we were heading into a maelstrom of political chaos and angry zealots.
At 3 a.m., with a dime-bright moon blazing down on us, we walked single-file across the airstrip and climbed onto the back of the C-130. I had my headphones shoved into my ears. Once inside the belly of the plane, I sat back and pressed Play on my iPod. My flak vest digging into my throat, I listened to Rickie Lee Jones, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen and Alanis Morrisette. For an hour, I was transported back to a life that seemed so far gone—driving around in my van back in the United States with the stereo cranked listening to these same songs. I closed my eyes and, for the space of a song, I was home in a car full of people I loved—my wife and three kids.
The plane shuddered through the air above Iraq and Sinead O'Connor came on, belting and screeching her anti-war plea:
Listen to the man in the liquor store—
He says "Doesn't anybody wanna drink before the war?"
Fifteen minutes later, I was on the ground in Baghdad where there was no alcohol, no mercy, no relief from the next 10 months of daily death. Most disappointing, of course, was the fact there were no weapons of mass destruction, no atomic bomb which needed to be dismantled. In my head, the ghost of the lost CD continued to play, Bono singing his plaintive cry to "Yahweh":
Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don't make a fist
Take this mouth
So quick to criticise
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss
David Abrams and Fobbit links:
Barnes and Noble Review interview with the author
Books, Personally interview with the author
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
The Millions profile of the author
Montana Public radio interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists