Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Power of Words: Fobbit by David Abrams

For some time I have followed David Abram's blog The Quivering Pen and now I follow him on Twitter. The Other Joseph and American Copper were books I won from his weekly giveaway.  When I saw his book Fobbit in the local bookstore, one lone copy sitting on the shelf, I knew it meant for me; it was time I read Abram's book. Being bogged down with reviews and book club readings it sat on my TBR shelf a few weeks until Memorial Day. It seemed the right time, and setting aside the other four books I was reading, I started Fobbit.

Back at Adrian College, in my sophomore year, I signed up for a 400 level English class on Modern Literature. That year the course focused on Black Humor. I had no idea what that meant.

Our reading list included Henderson the Rain King by Bellow, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Barth's The Floating Opera and Sot Weed Factor, and Heller's Catch-22. These books knocked my socks off. I had never read anything like them before. And reading Fobbit I realized it had been a long time since I had read Black Humor.
Fobbit ’fä-b t, noun. Definition: A U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003–2011). Pejorative.
The novel is inspired by Abrams' career in the army as a Fobbit working at a Forward Operating Base during the Iraq war. Like his character Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding, Jr. Abrams worked in PR, spinning the news from Iraq to conform to the changing goals of the military.

The characters are Dickensian, full of absurd characteristics; Lt. Col. Harkleroad is prone to nosebleeds under stress, Lt. Col. Vic Duret zones out into daydreams of his wife's breast, and Capt. Abe Shrinkle, who nearly wets his pants under attack, makes up tales of his heroism in his letters to his mother. I laughed out loud. Abrams can be very funny. (His character's names are, too.)

The power of words informs the book. Starting with Gooding, whose job in public affairs involves turning "the bomb attacks, the sniper kills, the sucking chest wounds, and the dismemberments into something palatable--ideally, something patriotic--that the American public could stomach as they browsed the morning newspaper with their toast and eggs." Abrams goes on to clarify, "Good's weapons were words, his sentences missiles."

There are scenes of horrible violence that show the absurdity of war. Harkleroad has the worst judgment and creates one PR problem after another. Including shooting an strangely behaving Iraqi only to find the deceased was mentally ill and blowing up a military vehicle rather than leaving it for the enemy to find, setting off a fire that leaves another Iraqi civilian dead.

Gooding's job is to write up the PR report, twisting the raw truth into military approved pablum.
He has mastered KIA press releases. The problem is getting the higher-ups to approve them.
Meantime, the news media reports eye witness accounts.

Gooding turns out a PR, his superior Harkleroad puts a spin on it. Gooding rewrites the PR. Harkleroad gets a stress nosebleed and suggests punching it up "with a few adjectives here and there," suggesting "they responded with lightning-like speed and efficiency" to play up the Iraqi forces' role. Gooding rewrites the PR. Harkleroad finally hits the "send" button. By then the news is so old that the Associated Press return message is "Stale News." On CNN an eyewitness is already telling the world what happened. "Where the heck did they get that information," Harkleroad moans. "They were there, sir," Gooding replies.

A catastrophe occurs; thousands of Iraqi pilgrims are crowding around a mosque when someone shouts, "he's got a bomb." Panic ensues. In the chaos of fleeing humanity, a bridge breaks and topples hundreds into the water. More people die in the incident than had died the entire previous month. "It was the shout that killed, the words that had devastated more than any shrapnel or flames could ever do."

What we say is never objective, we all have something to sell. Everything is slanted. The military reports, the news, television, advertising. Words are, always have been weapons, tools that when well used can lead thinking, prompt responses, create need or inspire rejection.

At the end of the novel Gooding has reached the limit, realizing "no matter how many words we put on pieces of paper, it's all useless in the end because those press releases just wind up as some editor's paper basketball arcing through the air into a wastebasket in a newsroom somewhere in South Dakota."

The novel is black comedy, considering the horror of war and the challenges of military life through the lens of satire--because we really don't want to hear about it straight.

by David Abrams
Grove Atlantic/Black Cat
$15 paperback

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