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When considering writers who first publish after the age of 40, it’s tempting to subscribe to one mythology or another. A few archetypal stories tend to surface over and over: the dues-paying artist, spending those early years raising a family or working in a factory. The serial submitter, sending in query after story after manuscript until some wise editor sees the literary diamond in the slushpile coal. The serendipitous instance of sheer luck — a conversation with the right stranger, the mistakenly rerouted envelope.
So once in a while it’s refreshing to hear from a writer — one who’s still writing, and not yet the stuff of legend — that sometimes those extra ten or twenty years are just how long it takes. There doesn’t always need to be a dramatic story to later-life publication — sometimes a writer may just be spending a couple of decades reading, writing, working, and living enough to know what it is he’s writing about. Often those intervening years are simply about showing up.
David Abrams is one of the guys who kept showing up. His debut novel Fobbit — out from Grove/Atlantic on September 4 — is a tale of the Iraq war that manages to be as dark as it is funny, which is to say considerably. Abrams, who turned 49 in May, spent twenty years as an active-duty Army journalist — in Thailand, Japan, Africa, Alaska, Texas, Georgia, and the Pentagon. In 2005 he was deployed to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division to help support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Fobbit emerged from his year of observations. This was Abrams’s first time in a combat zone, and he kept a journal — what he termed a daily “brain dump.” But the novel didn’t take shape until he’d been back for a year, and he spent another six years writing, editing, and pitching it.
“Fobbit” is Army slang for an employee stationed at a Forward Operating Base, the fortified military compound set up to support tactical operations during wartime. Grunts and officers come and go during the course of their days, but Fobbits — the war’s desk jockeys — stay on base in air-conditioned comfort, writing press releases and sorting mail and playing video games in their downtime. Needless to say, they’re pretty well despised:
They were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center…. If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.
A Fobbit’s world manages to combine the rank horrors of war with the mind-numbing beadledom of cubicle land — an amplification of the most protocol-sludgy, buzzword-laden, management-heavy office you’ve ever had the misfortune to work in. Abrams’s über-Fobbit, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, Jr., spends his days crafting press releases that then have to climb an editorial chain of semi-inept command before they’re ready to be fired off to wire services and news outlets. Most of these concern casualties, injuries, and insurgents, and contain language such as “[LOCAL NATIONAL] SUBSEQUENTLY EXPIRED FROM WOUNDS INCONSISTENT WITH LIFE.”
Forward Operating Base Triumph has a Starbucks, a Burger King, a fitness center, a bowling alley, and cable TV; but it also hosts the occasional stray mortar in the food court. All the comforts of home don’t eliminate the reality that this is a war zone, and all the Army Press Corps’ euphemisms still can’t change the fact that they’re talking about suicide bombers, incinerated civilians, soldiers with their legs blown off — a parade of senseless carnage on both sides.
And herein lies David Abrams’s balancing act. He’s written a book that makes you laugh and makes you wince, often at the same time, all the while staying true to its message: that people are foolish on many levels, sometimes fatally so, but they are all motivated by the same basic needs, desires, and fears. Many of his characters are absurd: Gooding’s toadying supervisor Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, who writes his mother long fictitious emails detailing his bravery in combat (in reality he red-pencils press releases and dreams longingly of all-you-can-eat seafood night at the mess hall); Captain Abe Shrinkle, who does see action on the other side of the wire but screws it up so thoroughly that he’s demoted to towel duty at the gym; Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret, who suffers PTSD brought on not by battle carnage but from endlessly imagining his brother-in-law’s last minutes in the World Trade Towers. But they’re not caricatures, and Abrams never yields to cruelty. He was, after all, a Fobbit himself once.
For a thinking man in the military there have to be a constant series of accommodations, and Abrams writes with the compassion born of that understanding. But neither does he spare his personnel. Those who don’t succumb to their own presumptions in Fobbit still find themselves at the mercy of the greatest act of hubris of all — war itself. About halfway through his time in Iraq, his agent mentioned that it would only be through a novel or stories that the public could truly understand the war. “Factual accounts are all well and good,” Abrams adds, “but sometimes you need to amplify your message through the megaphone of fiction.”
Abrams’s relationship with that message started early. Beginning with those great mid-’60s classics Biff the Fire Dog and the condensed Golden Books version of Pinocchio, he was reading at age five and fell in love with storytelling soon after:
There was something about the pairing of words, the progression of sentences, which really appealed to me. I was a reader first, a storyteller second, and a writer third. But I think they all happened right around the same time — before I was 10 years old.
In junior high he became a mystery fan, immersed in Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and P.D. James. He subscribed to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, so it only seemed logical to try his hand at some “locked-room mystery stories” — not bad technically, in retrospect, but according to Abrams, pretty well lacking in character development and believable dialogue. But those early forays were useful exercises in what comes hardest for many writers: sending work out and getting it back.
It got me used to sending out stories to magazines and having those manila envelopes come boomeranging right back at me. My wife has always marveled at how I could deal with such prolonged and relentless rejection. I point to my teenage years as the time I really toughened my skin — got it thick as rhinoceros hide.
Still, for a guy in love with the written word he took a bit of a roundabout route. Abrams started out as a theater major at the University of Wyoming, with dreams of becoming an actor. Two watershed moments conspired to change his mind.
During his sophomore year he wrote a two-character play, and a workshop class performed a public reading of it — no stage blocking or costumes, just the actors sitting on high stools reading the script from music stands. Abrams still remembers how thrilling it was to sit in the audience and hear his dialogue ringing through the theater. “I remember thinking, ‘I did this, I created that,’” he recalls. “I owned those words.”
Six months later, he had returned to his hometown of Jackson, Wyoming to work in a summer-stock theater, thinking he was “God’s gift to the theater world.” But at the beginning of that summer he met a beautiful girl and fell in love. She wasn’t exactly impressed with his stage presence, though, and in an impulsive act of trust he showed her some of his short stories, thinking, “Please don’t crush my heart.”
She took them and read them. And that night, she told him, “You know, you’re a much better writer than you are an actor.” Abrams had the good sense to pay attention, and he turned away from the theater to become a writer. He also had the good sense to stick with the beautiful girl; he and his wife Jean have been married 28 years.
By the time he was 21 Abrams was an English major at the University of Oregon, ready to take on all comers:
Back then, I had it all mapped out…. I thought I’d write a bunch of short stories as an undergrad, get them critiqued in class, work on them some more and gradually build a portfolio. Somehow, I thought I’d be handed a writing career with my diploma when I walked across the stage.
Things didn’t go quite as planned. While he published stories here and there throughout his twenties and thirties, in such notable venues as The Greensboro Review and Esquire, surviving as a full-time writer proved elusive. Like many artists, he had a series of alternate “careers”: as a cook at Mr. Steak, a manager of a boat-and-RV storage yard, a newspaper reporter and editor, a school janitor, a pizza-delivery driver, a video store clerk, a tutor in a remedial writing program at a community college, and — last but not least — an active-duty enlisted soldier until retiring, after twenty years, in 2008. Which, Abrams knows now, was all excellent grist for a writer. At the time, it felt like a series of roadblocks.
But he kept writing. Fobbit isn’t his first novel; that honor goes to a long-discarded manuscript about a runaway bride. And there was a second — his master’s thesis at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the story of a 20-year-old midget who finds work as the stuntman and bodyguard for a spoiled child actor in 1940s Hollywood. Abrams took the work as far as he could, and turned it in to his adviser, Jo-Ann Mapson:
I’ll never forget the afternoon she called me into her office. There was a single lamp burning on her desk and we sat there in that half-light talking for about 45 minutes about the book — the good, the bad, but mostly the good. Jo-Ann liked what she read, but… But then, and I’ll never forget this, she placed her hand on the top of the three-inch-high manuscript and looked at me as solemn as a preacher on a Sunday morning and said, “I think this is going to make a great second novel.”
She believed he had another, better book in him that needed to come out first. Neither of them knew at the time what that might be, but her faith buoyed him. Eight months later Abrams was on a plane headed for Iraq.
And that’s where all those years of thinking like a writer, of looking for the story in the mundane, paid off. In Fobbit, Abrams follows the men and women of FOB Triumph through their days in a series of vignettes and set pieces, each a nod to that moment where horror meets tedium — each one depressingly, laughably, believable.
There are no heroes here, but no villains either. Each character fights his own war, and nobody wins. Captain Shrinkle, who proves to be a coward early on, tries to redeem himself in a series of missions that go terribly wrong — and proceeds to prove that being demoted to towel duty is not the worst that can befall a disgraced soldier. Gooding, the ultimate go-along-to-get-along guy, finds it harder and harder to reconcile the banal press releases and endless emails debating the use of “terrorist” versus “insurgent,” ever more unsettled by putting user-friendly spin on death and destruction. And poor Harkleroad almost begins to believe his own hype until he’s taken down in the horrendous — and yet hilarious — PR disaster that upends the Fobbits of Bravo like a wayward mortar round.
Abrams has played many roles over the years, but he was never not a writer. Sometimes, many years is just how long it takes to develop a voice, to keep your eyes open, to remember when to write things down. It speaks to his tenacity that even now he talks about Fobbit’s publication as something of a surprise. “I’m still a little dazzled by how fast this miracle has happened,” he says, and only then adds, “even though it had a 30-year approach.”