A sharp set of stories, the author's debut, about U.S. soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their aftermaths, with violence and gallows humor dealt out in equal measure.
Klay is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, and the 12 stories reveal a deep understanding of the tedium, chaos and bloodshed of war, as well as the emotional disorientation that comes with returning home from it. But in the spirit of the best nonfiction writing about recent U.S. war vets (David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, for example), Klay eschews simple redemptive or tragic narrative arcs. The discomfiting “Bodies” is narrated by a Mortuary Affairs officer whose treatment of women back home is almost as equally coldhearted as he had to be when collecting remains, while “Prayer in the Furnace” is told from the perspective of a chaplain forced to confront a battalion that’s been bullied into a hyperviolent posture. Klay favors a clipped, dialogue-heavy style, and he’s skilled enough to use it for comic as well as dramatic effect. “OIF,” for instance, is a vignette that riffs on the military’s alphabet soup of acronyms and how they emotionally paper over war’s toll. (“And even though J-15 left his legs behind, at least he got CASEVAC’d to the SSTP and died on the table.”) The finest story in the collection, “Money as a Weapons System,” follows a Foreign Service Officer tasked with helping with reconstruction efforts in Iraq. His grand ambition to reopen a water treatment plant is slowly undone by incompetence, internecine squabbling and a congressman’s buddy who thinks there’s no problem in Iraq that teaching kids baseball won’t fix; Klay’s grasp of bureaucracy and bitter irony here rivals Joseph Heller and George Orwell. The narrators sound oddly similar throughout the book, as if the military snapped everybody into one world-wise voice. But it does make the book feel unusually cohesive for a debut collection.
A no-nonsense and informed reckoning with combat.