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Feats of Klay

By Phil Klay
(Canongate, 291pp, £15)

‘Nobody wants to do a year in Iraq’, mutters one of the narrators in Phil Klay’s Redeployment, ‘and come back with nothing but stories about the soft-serve ice-cream machine at the embassy cafeteria.’

No kidding. And Klay (rhymes with ‘guy’) will not have been the first soldier, American or otherwise, to return from operations and find that gung-ho anecdotes were frankly expected of him. But a run-down of the opening lines in this debut story-collection – ‘We shot dogs’; ‘In any other vehicle we’d have died’; ‘For a long time I was angry’ – would make for an more-than-acceptable PowerPoint on the diversity of American experience during their nine-year misadventure in Iraq.

Hooked very loosely on Klay’s own 13 months in Anbar Province, as a Marine Public Affairs officer, during the ‘Surge’ of 2007-8, Redeployment progressively gives voice to grunts and morticians, chaplains and Foreign Service officials, as they variously assault bomb-factories, get written up for decorations, stumble upon scenes of torture, wrangle with politicians, and (ever present throughout the project) attempt to deal with the peculiar perturbations of homecoming – which is what, in this context, ‘redeployment’ actually means.

And they tell stories. What Klay’s pieces turn out to be, in the main, are stories about stories. Stories sons hear from their veteran fathers. Hero stories as part of their not so heroic training programme: ‘In boot camp, the DIs teach you Medal of Honor stories.’ Stories made up just to fill in some paperwork. In ‘War Stories’, the protagonists try their best not to tell any stories at all.

The strategy is well-managed, the tactics subtle. Klay is naturally fluent in the distinct registers of military conversation – the salty, the salutary, the inarticulate humanity – but his frames of reference also incorporate the Jesuits, Egyptian poetry and The Wire. He instinctively plays off the rough soldierly humour against the dark realities it has always been intended to deal with, but he approaches the heavier (read ‘predictable’) issues at a cautious angle. An officer in Haditha (‘In Vietnam They Had Whores’) flaps about his troops’ collegial handing round of a ‘pocket-pussy’; a young soldier reflects that if the platoon can’t find the whorehouse they don’t know the city well enough to be there.

‘OIF’ (Operation Iraqi Freedom) is a three-page exercise in the wilful – and often smug – opacity of the military sub-language, and especially its godawful acronyms. You need a dislocated kind of intellect to wind up assessing your personal value in terms of ‘WIA’ vs ‘KIA’ – and a very unusual sensitivity to that environment to compose a story which, for the outsider, is at once completely alienating and yet makes (almost) total sense.

It’s no discredit to his own soldier-turned-author success story that Klay was already a graduate of literature and creative writing before he joined the Marine Corps, or that his Public Affairs role would have consisted substantially of listening to – and indeed shaping – ‘narratives’ on the front lines. He maintains, for the record, that he left for Iraq with no particular writing opportunity in mind. On the evidence of Redeployment, though, it can only have been a matter of time.

Phil Klay has since announced that his follow-up, a novel, is not going to be about war. A pity for military writing. But it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with instead.

For Literary Review