Thursday, April 2, 2015

Iraq vet Phil Klay's "brutal, piercing, sometimes darkly funny collection" wins National Book Award

REDEPLOYMENT, Phil Klay’s debut novel, is grim. Dark grim. Funny grim. Despairingly grim. Infuriatingly grim. Grim grim. And brilliant.

Set mostly in Iraq during the surge, it is a collection of twelve short stories, each told by a different character in first person. The book “asks us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos.” (, 3/18/15)

In describing the book, the National Book Award judges said, “These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy,
comradeship, and violence that make up a soldier’s daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse and despair that can accompany a soldier’s homecoming.” (

And, as Dexter Filkins wrote in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (3/6/14), “Klay has a nearly perfect ear for the language of the grunts – the cursing, the cadence, the mixing of humor and hopelessness.”

The title story opens with the line, “We shot dogs,” which Klay has said was the only line he had clearly in mind when he started. In Iraq, the narrator and his fellow Marines shoot street dogs to stop them from lapping up the blood of the wounded and dead. He returns home, tired and uneasy, to his wife and his own elderly dog:

Cheryl said, ‘How are you?’ which meant, How was it? Are you crazy now?

When it’s apparent that his own sick dog, Vicar, must be put down, he decides he has to do it himself. He carries the dog to a stream.

He was heavy and warm, and he licked my face as I carried him, slow, lazy licks from a dog that’s been happy all his life. When I put him down and stepped back, he looked up at me. He wagged his tail. And I froze.

As he looks at the dog, a particularly horrendous memory from his deployment comes back.

Staring at Vicar, it was the same thing. This feeling, like, something in me is going to break if I do this.

In “After Action Report,” a Marine called Tinhead shoots and kills a young Iraqi boy who has run out of his house with an AK. The boy’s mother “came just in time to see bits of him blow out of his shoulders.” Tinhead asks his best buddy to say he killed the boy because he cannot bear to talk about what he has done.

“Money As a Weapons System” is an infuriating but darkly amusing tale about the tens of millions of US taxpayers’ dollars we poured into “projects” in Iraq: a water plant that was so poorly designed that pipes would explode if it were ever actually completed. The “project manager” who has long since abandoned the plant and in favor of an extended visit to select “temporary wives” in Iran, shrugs off questions about where all the money has gone. The plant is on the Shi’a side of town. When the manager and the Shi’a powers-that-be finally understand that, if the plant is completed and started up, it will explode every toilet and water line on the Sunni side, work immediately begins again. Then there is the Mattress King back in the US, with ties to Congressmen, who insists that the way to win the war is to teach the Iraqis baseball. He ships over uniforms and equipment and demands (through his Congressional pals) pictures of kids playing the game. The Foreign Service Officer who narrates the story finally manages to corral a couple of Iraqi boys and stage a photo to send back.

A chaplain has a crisis of faith in “Fire in the Furnace” after he tells a troubled soldier, “And I don’t know what any of us can do except pray He gives us the strength to do what we must.” The chaplain thinks,

I wasn’t sure I believed the words I was saying to him or there were any words I’d believe in. What do words matter in Ramadi?

Phil Klay is a graduate of Dartmouth and has an MFA from Hunter College. He served in the US Marine Corps in Anbar Province. His debut book won the 2014 National Book Award. He was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize and named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. This year he received the 2015 National Book Critics’ Circle John Leonard Award for best debut book in any genre. His work has appeared in, among other places, Granta and Tin House.

In the citation that accompanied the National Book Award, the judges said, “In these thematically linked stories, Phil Klay creates a kaleidoscopic vision of conflict and homecoming. With a strikingly original set of voices, Klay inhabits the hearts of grunts, mortuary workers, chaplains, psy-ops officers, and civilian bureaucrats muddling through doomed reconstruction projects. If all wars ultimately find their Homer, this brutal, piercing, sometimes darkly funny collection stakes Klay’s claim for consideration as the quintessential storyteller of America’s Iraq conflict.”

He is working on another novel. (For more, see the Shelf Awareness Q&A, reprinted at

1 comment:

  1. I didn't read this post until today. I hate war and anything or anyone who glorifies it or gains profit from it. I also have little respect for anyone who would kill their own dog rather than taking it to a vet and having it calmly fall asleep in its owners arms. But after the post on 6-7-15 I just might think about reading, "redeployment".