What is a novel about war supposed to do in 2012? Such works have all but lost their ancient claim to cultural significance. War is just another subject now, not the supposed crucible of social meaning it used to be, where destinies were forged and destroyed, where youth and trust were lost so terribly and beautifully, and where, in a kind of existential Bar Mitzvah, boys turned into men and learned their dads were maybe wrong about some things but they upheld their dads’ world anyway. The idea of war and beauty being linked now seems ridiculous to us, and, because we do not have a draft anymore, you have to wonder if there’s any overlap at all between the kids who have to fight our shitty wars and those who write our books. What aspiring novelist at Oberlin or Brown would join the army and go to Afghanistan because she thought she’d glean some all-important fact of human nature there and only there? Which American writers join the rebels in the hills?
Among our recent literary war books, Jarhead looks at war through the lens of masculine obsolescence, while Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is an inscrutable, almost Gnostic phantasmagoria. In Falcons on the Floor, a new novel by Justin Sirois, war is not definitive of anything, except for how it puts the social contract in a shredder. Falcons on the Floor describes the lives of two Iraqi boys, Salim and Khalil, who run away from Fallujah as the coalition of the willing closes in. Because Sirois makes no political speeches and his characters are totally overwhelmed and lack the language to describe what they have lost, the novel may seem grim, but its single-minded focus on the damage done to civil life by war, the negation of the social, gives the novel both a critical position and a ruthless emotional power.
The reader meets Salim and Khalil as their lives are losing meaning. Salim does various odd jobs for Fedayeen, which earn him 200,000 dinar, because the currency has no value except for bribes, so he carries all his money in his pockets in case the Fedayeen—i.e. his allies, the folks he blows up roads for—shake him down. He has no group that he can join for safety’s sake and no way to even prudently sell out. As he waits around to die, Salim wonders how he’ll watch his pirated DVDs when Fallujah loses power. “With the economy destroyed by war and everyone out of a job,” he thinks, “bootlegging seemed like the only honest profession.” There is nothing for him to do as the world is destroyed but watch some television.
And Khalil’s predicament is bleaker. When employees of the private contractors Blackwater are killed and hung from a bridge, he is photographed looking unhappy, and the picture, which is circulated widely on the internet, makes him a celebrity who appears to not support the cause against the invasion. In other words, his public self negates his would-be professional identity—the private Khalil is very sweet and only wants to hang out with his friends—and because he is a bomber, he can’t defend himself to the community without being caught. Nonetheless, he continues planting bombs, either because he hopes to re-acquire his identity with blood or because there’s nothing else to do.
At the beginning of the book, Khalil helps a comrade named the Digging Man plant a bomb, but you wouldn’t exactly call them buddies: “Khalil Hammadi wished the Digging Man would just explode.” Named only for his job, The Digging Man is purely what he does, and acts as a foil for Salim and Khalil. A passage in his point-of-view is painfully expedient and practical: he muses about possessions in his office and admires himself for successfully setting bombs off. He does not feel anxiety or remorse—unlike Salim and Khalil—and it is him, who excels at taking lives without compunction, not the sensitive protagonists, who gains advancement. The Digging Man is promoted to the job of Project Manager, so he changes his name to Project Manager and sends the sentimental duo to go be snipers.
Feelings are for suckers, in other words. The miserable pair flee on foot, and their journey is a parody of normal domestic life, since it occurs in quotidian locations—mostly riverbanks, intersections and subdivisions—whose meaning war has left annulled. The two are variously threatened by people who can’t tell if they, or anyone, are enemies or friends: by fellow Iraqi loyalists who have nothing to be loyal to but still like making others feel afraid, by American soldiers who try to act like war is fun, and also by civilians. The duo sneak through endless empty neighborhoods—everyone else has also run away—and argue over what their obligation is to others who have fled. At first, they disagree on whether to pilfer items from a laundry line; Khalil goes ahead and does it, leaving ten thousand worthless dinar in exchange and telling himself, “We’ll bring them back,” (62) which of course he has no intention of ever doing. Later on, when more illusions have been lost, the pair break into another empty house and loot it, and a vagrant who has stalked them through the desert steals their backpack. Khalil beats the man with a chair-leg. In desperation, Salim, who is supposed to be the smart one, drinks from the Euphrates, and gets about as sick as you’d imagine. Both boys miss their families but never call them on the phone.
The story of Salim and Khalil is bookended by passages describing two American brothers who begin as working-class suburbanites and end up in the army, and their lives, like the Iraqi pair’s, are wizened into nullity by war. At the novel’s end, Salim and Khalil face both the kind of horrible decision one might expect in a novel like this, as well as unexpected mercy at the hands of the Americans, and the energies that war has been erasing for two hundred and sixty pages—civility and sympathy and trust—are tentatively re-deployed by the protagonists, at the risk of death. A major question in this dark book is how Sirois will choose to end things, and his conclusion isn’t bleak but isn’t happy, either. The novel nods at our desire for encouragement about the future without taking a position on it. The final passage is filled with action and exceedingly well-controlled; it is the place where Sirois’ ploy of stripping everything away pays
Sirois collaborated on this book with an Iraqi woman named Haneen Alshujairy, who served as a kind of verisimilitude advisor. It’s impossible to know exactly what her contribution was, and if, for example, she signed off on Sirois’s lovely characterization of Iraqi kids as something like Americans in the middle of an apocalypse: bored, scared, lonely, hungry, and jonesing for an hour on their XBOX. Maybe she just told him him what the foods and smells should be. Still, as the book was being edited, Ms. Alshujairy and her family left Iraq for Egypt, where they found themselves endangered by the revolution, and they recently gained visas for the United States, so while it may seem almost too easy to say this book feels real because it’s rooted in reality, that’s pretty much how it looks.
Sirois can write a lovely sentence when he wants to. The silt of the Euphrates feels “…like an unbaked cake,” the weeds beside the river make him think he’s walking “…on the back of some huge hyena.” But the novel metes out beauty very skeptically—unlike, say, the aestheticizing rhapsodies of Michael Herr’s Dispatches—and in a book where characters are squabbling pathetically for material distraction, Sirois is careful not to issue any baubles to the reader. Falcons on the Floor is a poised first novel.