Phil Klay’s New Novel Is a Sobering Look at America’s Wars

Phil Klay’s New Novel Is a Sobering Look at America’s Wars

Klay is interested in the machinations of post-9/11 American power. Lisette compares Colombia to Iraq and Afghanistan. “This was an extension of the same war,” she thinks, “not the endless war on ‘terror’ but something vaguer, harder to pin down and related to the demands of America’s not-quite-empire, which was always projecting military power across the globe and just shifting the rationale of why.”

There are many thoughts of this sort in “Missionaries.” The author has done his homework and sticks pushpins into a large map. Yet this novel works, when it does, when it flies lower to the ground. Its flashes of genius and beauty are entirely in its details, not in foreign policy punditry.

Klay is brilliant on things like what it’s like to walk through a city after a recent bombing. He is very fine on what he calls the soundtrack of war: “the rasp of the Velcro on magazine pouches opening, the crunch of dried mud yielding to the massive tires of heavy armored vehicles, the cough of a diesel engine, the roar of a passing Chinook, the excited shouts from a nearby soccer field, the chirping of birds.”

He understands both the technology of war and the wet stuff of brutality and torture. He’s dryly funny about the new realities of American journalism and foreign reporting, where online “there’s no page A26 to flip past, because people don’t accidentally get reported facts on the way to the opinion page anymore.”

Klay’s writing about tending to the wounded is electric in its exactness. “I didn’t like the blood flow,” Mason says. “I pulled the stomach down, pushed two fingers past it, slippery, rubbery, until I could feel the aorta. It pulsed under my fingers. This is life, I thought. I looked at Carlos’s face, which was pale, serene. I compressed the aorta manually.”

These excellencies are small moments tucked into a baggy novel that struggles to find its focus. It’s not the author’s fault that the culture is saturated with prestige dramas (“Narcos,” “El Chapo”) about the drug wars, and that Don Winslow recently wrapped up his masterly Cartel trilogy. But there’s a sense, while reading “Missionaries,” of moving over instead of transcending familiar ground.

Late in the novel, the major characters are cinched together when Lisette is kidnapped while reporting. The denouement is reasonably exciting, in a gung-ho sort of way. But unlike “Redeployment,” this novel never, to paraphrase Iceberg Slim, butchers off a hunk of your mental ass.

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