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ENEMY COMBATANT by David Winner Kirkus Star


by David Winner

Pub Date: March 2nd, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-944853-75-4
Publisher: Tablo

An American man in turmoil pursues a disastrous plan to right the wrongs of extraordinary rendition in this novel.

When he was growing up, Peter Shipman saw his father—once a fiery activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War—descend into an angry, liquor-fueled viewer of fight-the-system movies. Admiring his father’s principles, if not the man himself, Peter becomes determined to wage similar battles; “Jim Crow was dead, but there was Ronald Reagan to contend with.” Now, in 2005, 32-year-old Peter designs web pages and is married to Sarah, a prosecuting attorney expecting their first child. Learning that his mother, Alice, is failing after a botched emergency surgery, Peter rushes from Brooklyn to Phoenix. At his dying mother’s hospital bed, Peter boils over with rage at everyone he holds responsible, not just the heart surgeon, but also Arizona itself (full of Republicans), the George W. Bush administration, and its war crimes. Back home, Peter waits for Sarah to go to bed every night. He then gets wasted and doomscrolls the internet: “He wasn’t normally what you’d call an angry drunk, but the words Bush, torture, Arizona, and Alice burned through his gut like savage heart burn.” When things come to a head, Sarah kicks him out for four months, their future reconciliation depending on whether he gains equilibrium. An invitation abroad from his similarly debauched college roommate, Leonard Kaufman, promises a welcome distraction until, on a trip through Georgia, Peter learns of secret CIA prisons there and in nearby Armenia. Peter conceives a desperate plan to find one of the prisons, photograph it, break in, and release the inmates with Leonard’s help. Though Peter and Leonard couldn’t be more unqualified, the misbegotten, sometimes comic mission has some unlikely success but inevitably is marred by an unforgettable and futile tragedy.

In his third novel, Winner constructs a train-wreck scenario that readers can’t look away from no matter how gruesome it becomes. While the two friends’ goals are laughably out of reach, the author makes each step of the journey plausible in itself as Peter and Leonard stumble through one misadventure after another, degenerating all the way. Winner also manages the feat of giving these escapades the taut excitement of a macho-patriotic action thriller—or rather, its warped, fun-house-mirror reflection. Many readers will sympathize with Peter’s fury at the government’s role in torturing prisoners held in black-op sites and understand his fantasy of doing something about it. But the author’s subtle, intelligent characterization makes clear that however well-earned Peter’s rage against the machine is, that machine is also a convenient target that allows him to displace intolerable emotions or avoid honest self-evaluation. Similarly, Peter deflects grappling with how he’s destroying his marriage by caricaturing Sarah as someone who’s always playing the prosecutor during their arguments: “She couldn’t say, ‘objection, your honor,’ because she wasn’t in the courtroom.” In the end, Peter remains rightly haunted by his actions and their poignant consequences.

A searingly insightful, tragicomic adventure that lays bare personal and political fault lines.