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Novel captures fear, fellowship – even humor – of soldiers in Baghdad

“Brave Deeds” by David Abrams will be in stores Aug. 1.
“Brave Deeds” by David Abrams will be in stores Aug. 1. Courtesy Grove Atlantic/Black Cat

You’d think a novel called “Brave Deeds,” about soldiers making their way on foot through the most dangerous part of Baghdad, would be an intense war drama. In some ways it is, as there are plenty of violent and gruesome moments. But when David Abrams, a retired Army NCO (non-commissioned officer) and author of the satirical war novel “Fobbit,” focuses his shrewd hawk eyes on six AWOL soldiers, you can bet on a mish-mash of comic sarcasm and parody marching in step with a story that will have you cringing and nearly crying out of laughter or sadness till the end.

“Brave Deeds” is narrated in the first-person plural, the “we” being a metaphorical “dozen-legged beetle.” Abrams makes “we” a semi-omniscient narrator who knows almost everything about the men in the squad, including their family backgrounds and their politics. Those men include the squad’s deceased Staff Sgt. Rafe Morgan, his de facto replacement the specialist and soon-to-be Cpl. Dmitri Arogapoulos, who the guys call Arrow, and radio operator John Cheever, named by his father after the writer. Others in this “band of not-so-merry men” include Drew, Fish, Olijandro and Park.

The men loved Sgt. Morgan – most of them, anyway. After a suicide bomber kills Morgan, only the lieutenant, the company commander and a few other men in the platoon are allowed to attend the memorial service. But Arrow and his soldiers don’t let a little thing like orders prevent them from attending Morgan’s memorial service. The guys decide to steal a Humvee from the motor pool, so the squad can drive to the service anyway. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. The Humvee breaks down, Cheever forgets the radio, and by the time they go back to retrieve it, the Humvee has been stripped down and set on fire. As the men continue on foot in the miserable heat, you get a sense of Abrams’s and the beetle’s light sarcasm when the narrator describes the squad and its mission: “One team, one fight, one brotherhood. Just like the poster in our recruiter’s office.”

The men walk through the hot and dangerous streets, facing more obstacles and making new plans, which inevitably and sometimes literally blow up in their faces. Or, as the narrator puts it: “We’ve made a series of mistakes and there’s probably some giant cosmic hand somewhere waiting to finger flick our line of dominoes.”

Still, amidst the comedy of their poorly laid plans going awry, they worry about being captured and beheaded, or hanged and their bodies burned and left on display. “The war was always with us,” they say. “It tattooed our skin, it clothed us in sweat and sand and blood.”

The Cheever character provides Abrams the opportunity to compare the absurdity of these soldiers’ trek across Baghdad to the ridiculousness of Neddy Merrill’s using pools to swim his way home in John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer.” “But here we are, as stupid as that guy,” Cheever the soldier thinks, “walking across an angry city that hates us in order to attend a thirty-minute memorial service.” Cheever and the other soldiers, like Merrill, have no maps, no charts. Each man puts his life in danger; all determined to make it to their destination. What’s more, Abrams lends the swimming metaphor to two of his soldiers. “Arrow was a swimmer at sea, bobbing in the waves,” and after Olijandro is shot, his eyes “swim in and out of focus.” If you know the Cheever story, you have an idea how the squad’s Brave Deeds will end.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com.

“Brave Deeds”

By David Abrams

Black Cat, 272 pages

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