David Abrams served in the U. S. Army for twenty years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 where he worked as a member of a public affairs team. The book jacket of his new novel, Fobbit (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, 384 pp., $15, paper), does not tell us if he was an officer or a sergeant. If I had to guess, I’d say he was a sergeant and did a job similar to that of his main character, SSB Chance Gooding, Jr., but I could be wrong. Maybe he was one of the Lieutenant Colonels he lampoons in the book.
What is the meaning of the title? We are told on the attractive front jacket (done up in red, white and blue) that a Fobbit is “A U. S. Army employee stationed at a Forward Operating Base esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Pejorative.” In my dirty little war, the one in Southeast Asia, such a soldier was called a REMF, or so I am told. I never heard the term while I was in Vietnam. The term “REMF” and the Vietnam War are mentioned a few times in the novel—and to good effect.
Fobbit is a black comedy, in many ways an homage to Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s blackly comic World War II novel, which is name-checked at least twice in this novel. Fobbit is a well-written, beautifully designed narrative which held my attention throughout. It also made me care for the characters, even the totally hapless ones, such as CPT Abe Shrinkle, whom the reader can tell is not going to do well in Iraq, and would be unlikely to do well anywhere else on the planet.
The names of this novel’s characters—Gooding, Shrinkle, Duret, Harkleroad, Lumley, Blodgett, Fledger, Carnicle, Zipperer—are more than a nod to Charles Dickens and to Joseph Heller, and continue a comic-novel tradition of dwelling on funny names. Of course, people do have funny names in war zones.
One of the least favorite colonels I worked with in Vietnam was named Winterbottom. He was always referred to as
“Colonel Coldass” out of the range of his impaired hearing.
The pith of this fine comic novel is summarized by the author on page two. I can do no better for a prospective reader than to paraphrase those few lines here.
SSG Gooding worked in the PAO (Public Affairs Office) of the 7th Armored Division, which had its headquarters in one of the many marble palaces of the recently departed dictator Saddam Hussein. Gooding’s days were devoted to shuffling through Significant Activities reports and then producing press releases that transformed the reports into something the American public could be comfortable reading at breakfast over their waffles and eggs.
When a soldier stepped on an IED and his guts ended up hanging in a nearby tree, this event was sugar-coated into the soldier making the ultimate sacrifice to build a democracy in Iraq. Gooding spent his days in an air-conditioned cubicle in front of a computer while doing this vital task, as well as dealing with various oddly named officers and enlisted men.
It is obvious on every page that Abrams knows what he is writing about and has paid his dues in such an Army environment. I spent thirteen months in a similar environment in the U. S. Army thirty-eight years earlier, and I marveled at how much Gooding’s war resembled my ancient war.
As Karl Marlantes, author of the Vietnam War novel Matterhorn says in his blurb on the back cover, Fobbit manages to be both hilarious and deadly serious at the same time. That is a tribute to the humanity and the talent of David Abrams.
The author’s website is http://www.davidabramsbooks.com/works