Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Modern M*A*S*H

Author tackles gritty topic with humor

Express Staff Writer

David Abrams will chat and sign copies of his book “Fobbit,” with Ketchum’s Community Library and Iconoclast Books, Thursday, May 16, at 6 p.m.
Courtesy photo by Benjamin Busch

    There is a certain comfort in being able to rewrite history, especially when the history is chaotic and unpleasant.
    The popular sitcom “M*A*S*H” cemented tragedy as rife for comedy during the 1970s with its provocative and razor-sharp dialogue set in a hospital camp in the Korean War.
    In “Death Takes a Holiday,” “M*A*S*H” characters B.J., Hawkeye and Margaret have lost a patient on Christmas Day, a memory they wanted to spare his loved ones. When Margaret says she will get the death certificate, Hawkeye walks to the wall clock and slides the hand from 11:55 p.m. to past midnight declaring, “Look, he made it. Time of death, 12:05, December 26th.”
    The latest harbinger of war satire can be found in the pages of “Fobbit.” Author David Abrams, who retired in 2008 after a 20-year career in the active-duty Army as a journalist, cobbled a book from his personal journals kept while deployed to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  
    The book reads: “Of all the fobbits stationed at Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph, Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding is the fobbitiest. His M-16 is collecting dust, he reads Dickens and Cervantes instead of watching NASCAR with the grunts, and the only piece of Army intelligence he really shows an interest in is the mess-hall menu. Gooding works in the base’s public affairs office, furiously tapping out press releases that put a positive slant on the latest roadside bombing or strategic blunder before CNN can break the real story.”
    “Fobbit” was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2012 and continues gathering accolades as it gets around.
    The engaging author, who will be in Ketchum at the Community Library, Thursday, May 16, at 6 p.m., shared some of his post-war experience in an interview last week.

IME) How is life after “Fobbit?”
    Honestly, it’s better than I could have ever expected. It took me six years to write this book, and all along the way I worried about whether or not people would want to read a comedy about war. I knew it had been done before—to great success with “M*A*S*H” and “Catch-22,” for instance—but I wondered if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still too fresh, too raw for laughter. So, as publication day approached, I was a little nervous. But I’ve been happily relieved by the reaction of readers.  Most of them have understood where I was coming from—that if I was mocking anything, it was the bureaucracy of war, the befuddled business of military information campaigns.
    Since the novel came out, I’ve been on the go practically nonstop with bookstore appearances, festival panels and meeting with book clubs. Everyone has been so kind and enthusiastic for the book. I never expected this kind of reaction—never in a million years. It’s a cliché, but I wake up every day feeling like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

Is there a television show or film in the works yet?
    Yes. We’re in the final stages of working out the details, so I can’t say too much at this point, but I do have a team of producers who are excited about putting “Fobbit” on film. Stay tuned.

Will there be a “Fobbit” trilogy? What are you working on now?
    No plans for a trilogy or even a continuation of the story in another novel. There are bits and pieces of “Fobbit” which were cut from the original manuscript which might eventually work their way into some short stories, but other than that, I’ve pretty much left those characters where they were over there in Iraq. My next novel is a complete change of pace. It’s set in Hollywood in the 1940s and tells the story of a short man who finds work as a stunt double for a child actor. It’s a screwball comedy that’s sort of my homage to all those classic movies I love so much.

As a journalist, what’s your greatest disappointment about the American news system today?
    It’s the frantic rush to file a story before all the facts are checked. We’ve seen it happen all too often where innocent people are caught in a snare of accusation in the minutes and hours after a tragedy. I understand and sympathize with the newspaper or TV station’s need to be first with the breaking news, but I wish people in the media would learn to take a deep breath, hold it for a count of 10, and then slowly exhale before filing their story. This is something we were constantly fighting during my time in Iraq. Not that the media was the enemy; rather, their ticking deadlines were the problem. We in the military needed to get all the facts as accurate as possible before releasing the information. Reporters, meanwhile, were desperate for something, anything and often couldn’t wait for us to deliver the facts on a silver platter. There was this constant tug of anxiety and pressure, which went against the grain of the military’s methodical pace.

Did you have to write with spin?
    While I was over in Iraq? No, I never “spun” the truth. Contrary to the actions of my characters in “Fobbit,” the truth was never massaged to portray the U.S. Army in a better light. That was the exaggeration of satire for the sake of the novel. However, the part about the delays from the tangle of bureaucracy—needing to get multiple layers of approval—that was all pretty accurate.

What do people really need to know about war, the unvarnished truth or something more palpable?
    The unvarnished truth would be pretty hard for the average person to stomach. In this case, I’m talking about the daily gore, the smoking craters from roadside bombs, the broken bodies of children—that’s pretty strong stuff for readers to stomach in the pages of their newspaper or on their TV screens. But that’s the reality of war—something we soldiers saw on a regular basis—and maybe if more people were confronted with those kind of horrible images, we’d think twice the next time a president wants to gallop full-speed into a global conflict. If we saw the personal impact of war, instead of thinking of it in innocuous, politicized terms, then maybe we’d hit the pause button when we heard someone crying “wolf” or, in this case, “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

Did you suffer any PTSD?
    Thankfully, I haven’t experienced any bad after-effects from my time in Iraq, but I know it’s a very prevalent and serious condition among returning veterans—one which the military and the Veterans Affairs need to fully address before things get even more out of hand. It’s a silent epidemic, one that’s particular to each individual and so it can sometimes be hard to diagnose. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading a really good novel—one which is coming out next month—by Roxana Robinson called “Sparta.”  I highly recommend it to anyone who is trying to get inside the mind of a veteran traumatized by war and who’s having a hard time fitting back into society.

How does writing salve for you?
    Writing gives me a satisfaction that’s hard to describe.  Let’s say it’s the same kind of feeling a cook gets when making a perfect omelet—edges crisp and brown while the insides are slightly moist. Or, what an angler feels like when he has a strong, elusive trout on the other end of the line. Or it’s like the soft scraping sound a skier hears when carving a precise turn on the slope. It’s all of those things—and more. It’s a warm jolt in the brain, a rush of blood, a snapping click of words coming together.

What will you be talking about when you come to Sun Valley?
    I’ll be reading a couple of passages from “Fobbit,” and I’ll talk a little about my life as a creative writer trapped in the uniform of a soldier for 20 years. It wasn’t always easy juggling the demands of family, writing, and the long hours of the military, but if “Fobbit” is the payoff, then it was worth every mile I marched in combat boots.

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