Tuesday, March 24, 2009

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

This is really a magnificent first novel. From the opening scenes, the lives Meyer has constructed hover on a knife's edge of disaster. Poor choices and bad decisions land his characters in nasty situations. Readers have a sense of the big picture only because of viewpoint shifts, but the author reveals his secrets slowly. It is with a sense of impending doom that we watch the story unfold to what we fully expect will be its dreadful conclusion.

This novel did not get nearly the attention it deserved when it was published in February this year. If I have any complaints at all it is merely that it contained more words than it needed. The characters are drawn with sensitivity and depth and the scenes have added details that crank the readers' sense of foreboding to high.

It is said that men don't read novels. If all novels were as good as this one, I think we'd see a lot more men among the converted. This should appeal to those lovers of the Palahniuk oeuvre, though I hate to limit his appeal. It is a man's novel like Black Flies (Shannon Burke, 2008) or The Dog Fighter (Bojanowski, 2005) are men's novels. They are firmly from a man's point of view, and internal, if not introspective.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Gamble by Thomas Ricks

The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008

Ricks has a thesis--you can guess it from the title--and he makes his point forcefully. It had always been my contention that the people of Iraq must be better served and the concept of sending troops out into small outposts in cities and towns to establish peaceful areas is intuitively convergent. The intent was to have peace for long enough that a political solution could arise.

In practice we have been arming former insurgents to keep them from fighting with us and Iraqi citizens. We have established an uneasy calm for a period, but the political process has not moved in the direction we had hoped. Instead, with more peaceful living conditions in the cities and towns, political positions appear to have regressed and entrenched rather than broadened and become more inclusive.

How it plays out is anybody's guess. What I liked about Ricks' work was obtaining a sense of the difficult choices facing commanders at the time Petraeus was writing the new counter-insurgency manual, the disconnect between Washington and Baghdad, a peek at what life must have been like for thinking beings, our soldiers, executing orders and living in Iraq. I think the editing on this work was magisterial, because the amount of information must have been overwhelming, yet the material is cut so that a clear narrative with a fresh perspective emerges. I appreciate the timeliness--I can't believe we are reading in such depth about events that occured so recently. Kudos to Ricks.