Brave Deeds by David Abrams
2017 by Black Cat, 254 pages
(I received a copy of this from the publisher—both in ARC and final forms and as what is probably a necessary side note—while I’ve yet to meet Mr. Abrams, he and I have “known” each other well for over a dozen years now. I do not believe I’ve let it affect my review of his novel)
David Abrams’s second novel, Brave Deeds, follows his debut in that it also finds its setting in Iraq. This time around though, instead of the action occurring behind the fences, it’s out in the city of Baghdad. Much about the first chapter, titled “We,” sets up the novel very well. The chapter begins:
We walk, we walk, we walk.
We head into the fireball sun, packed in battle armor, baking from the inside out, throats coated with dust, hearts like parade drums, adrenaline spiking off the charts. We’re alone, cut off from the rest of the brigade back at Taji, and now thanks to a busted drive shaft weakened in last week’s IED blast, along Route Irish, we are without a Humvee. We’ll have to finish this on foot.
We are six men—Arrow, Park, Drew, O, Cheever, and Fish. And we are moving through the most dangerous sectors of Baghdad—the bubble of the boil—on foot now, thanks to the goddamn drive shaft and its microscopic cracks. We are on our way to FOB Saro to attend the memorial service for Sergeant Rafe Morgan and we are determined to make it there before sundown, alive, intact, all twelve arms and legs still attached. One team, one fight, one brotherhood. Just like the poster in our recruiter’s office.
Beginning with a chapter titled We is perfect as Abrams writes this novel in first person plural. The 54 chapters move quickly, vary in length, and give the reader insight into each of the six men moving across Baghdad, as well as Sergeant Rafe Morgan, the deceased whose funeral they are attempting to get to—even though they had to go AWOL and steal a bum Humvee for their attempt. The funeral is an officer’s only memorial, but he was their Sergeant and they are hell bent on getting there for the memorial.
Along the way we get to dip into each of the soldier’s lives, both current and maybe what from their past makes them tick now. There’s a new guy, a trigger happy guy, one questioning his sexuality, a generally quiet Koren-American, one expending too much thought into how to get his ex back, and one not quite remaining faithful to his wife. It’s a good cross-section of types that get along, and don’t and the stresses of a walk across Baghdad, without radio contact to their unit, without easy means of travel, without direction (no compass, no map), bring out all of their differences loudly.
Along the way they encounter natives happy to see them, a car of Sunnis opening fire in public, a dog is run over and killed, and they are apprised of a home where there is supposedly an IED making operation. Each of these leads them astray from their main mission, and in ways that explain the title of the book—while not on any official routines, and in fact having gone AWOL, each of these men perform brave deeds of one form or another during this long eight hour day and march. They also end up stealing a civilian van and helping out an extremely pregnant woman.
Being a fairly close-knit group of mostly young males, there are a lot of jabs at each other and dark humor and beyond spread throughout the novel and Abrams brings an authenticity to this aspect of Brave Deeds. And this humor is a welcome break to the constant tension both for the soldiers and the reader. What begins as a read that seemed like it would be almost a fun excursion slowly moves its way into a powerful trip for these six men that goes beyond the simple mission they’ve set up for themselves—though the result of that mission is quite powerful in itself. With their back stories and the various incidents along the trip, Abrams gave himself a lot of moving parts to juggle and not one of them hit the ground—this is an excellent novel about war and about life.