In "Redeployment", a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia, surrounded by people "who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members...
Redeployment is a collection of short stories by American writer Phil Klay. His first published book, it won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle's 2014 John Leonard Award given for a best first book in any genre.
Phil Klay is an American writer. He won the National Book Award for fiction in 2014 for his first book-length publication, a collection of short stories, Redeployment. In 2014 the National Book Foundation named him a 5 under 35 honoree. He was a United States Marine officer from 2005 to 2009.
The book comprises twelve stories that chronicle the experiences of soldiers and veterans who served during the Iraq War, specifically Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003 – 2010). Klay served in the United States Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009.He was deployed to the Anbar Province in 2007–8.
Klay has said that before and during his service in Iraq he did not have a "clear sense" that he was going to write about war, but that when he shared his plan to enter the military upon graduation, his Dartmouth College teacher and mentor, the American poet Tom Sleigh.
In "Redeployment", a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia, surrounded by people "who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died.
One of the many things I learned in reading this book was that during the Iraq war the mines were often laid in "daisy chains". Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) would roll out on patrol into, say, Fallujah and when they hit a bomb – "32,000lb of steel lifting and buckling into the air" – the immediate fear of the survivors was that this would be followed by a series of explosions from mines laid to have maximum impact on anyone approaching or escaping the initial carnage. The image stuck in my mind because that's what this collection of short stories is: a daisy chain of incendiary fictional accounts of frontline military experience in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, carefully deployed to detonate in the reader's mind one after another.
Phil Klay is an ex-marine who served in Iraq. But, in the present context, this is not what distinguishes him: what matters is that he is also a scrupulous and skilful writer. And Redeployment is the real thing – a vivid and vital battery of war stories that does not rely solely on its subject matter for impact (although, make no mistake, the subject certainly has impact).
I must admit, though, I struggled with the first few pages. I can't stand the clear-as-a-mountain-creek regular?guy style so beloved of the faux-masculine tough-but-vulnerable narrative. And for a page or two, Redeployment read to me as if it was written by a rogue Jack Daniels copywriter: "It was good. We got back on the plane and passed the fuck out. Woke up in America." Lots of "roger" this and "roger" that, and sentences like, "Sweat a little of the alcohol out, too." Here we go, I thought, 300 pages from some poor, screwed-up acronym?spewing marine who finds himself intellectually embarrassed to discover that human beings have rich, deep and dark inner lives. Read War and Peace, soldier.
I was wrong. This was but a single voice. And, as I read on through the collection, the opening title story revealed itself not to be a sign of limitation but of the book's range. For it is definitely in the combined effect of the stories that Redeployment garners its power and earns the comparisons to Tim O'Brien's writing on Vietnam that it has been getting in America. Indeed, Klay's gifts become more apparent with each new narrator and circumstance: his reach, his tonal control, his observational sophistication, the sheer emotional torque of his narratives. By the end, he had convincingly inhabited more than a dozen different voices and I felt I had learned more about Iraq than in any documentary or factual account.
In my favourite piece, "Prayer in the Furnace", a self-examining chaplain berates himself for daring to suggest that some good would come of suffering. He finds himself "disgusting" and "vile". He receives a startlingly beautiful letter from his mentor and writes a sermon citing Wilfred Owen. He is compassionate, despairing, desperate, resolved, courageous, cowardly, a foolhardy failure and a dogged success of a man, all at the same time. Not easy to achieve in 38 pages.
In "Money as a Weapons System", which reminded me of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, we witness a brilliantly cast Provincial Reconstruction Team struggle to make sense of the chaos. At great risk to all, the protagonist drives out to a water treatment plant – dark, rusted, locked – trying to locate Kazemi, the chief engineer. Eventually, Kazemi turns up and tells them that the Americans have built the wrong pipes which will deliver water at too great a pressure and blow up thousands of Sunni bathrooms; but as a Shi'a, he's loath to turn on the water for Sunnis because he'll be murdered. Nothing happens. Kazemi is killed anyway. Meanwhile, the team are delivered a consignment of baseball uniforms by a millionaire philanthropist, "the mattress king of northern Kansas", before they move on to a bee-keeping project with a handful of Iraqi widows.
Here we have a series of increasingly sophisticated portraits of men pulled apart by competing and contradictory feelings. It's no coincidence that Klay's secondary subject is male sexuality – its isolation, its neediness, its lust, pride, sometime sensitivity, sometime cauterisation. He writes with striking perception and unusual honesty about his soldiers' relationships with wives, girlfriends and lap dancers, as well as the Iraqi girls they see (often through cross hairs). There's some funny stuff – a platoon all get herpes because they're using the same "pocket pussy". There's some brutal stuff – an anecdote in the story "In Vietnam They Had Whores" that I'll leave you to read. But it is interesting that the horror of war allows Klay to smuggle in an uncustomary male frankness that makes Roth, Amis and the gang look elliptical and effete.
The thing that impressed me most, though, was Klay's behind-the-scenes skill with language. For the most part, the stories are planed and worked in that meticulous American manner. The dialogue is a lesson in how to render the rhythms of natural speech. And the poetical moments arise organically – as when in "Ten Kliks South" an artilleryman tells us, "I saw fires through the haze, or not even fires, just flashes of red in the dust and cordite."
To my mind, there are three stories that are not of the highest standard – the least convincing being "Psychological Operations", in which the conversation long outlasts its dramatic plausibility. But Redeployment is a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in the actuality of the wars that have been fought in our names.
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