When your debut novel is very much in thrall to a particular classic book, and it pales in comparison to that classic, it's probably not the best idea to have your central, semi-autobiographical character walking around reading a copy it. So, when Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jnr – the press officer "hero" of this mild satire of the Iraq War, which purports to highlight and mock the ridiculousness of conflict and its surrounding press manipulation, but which continually pulls its punches – is first seen flicking through the pages of Catch-22, it's one of a handful of cringeworthy moments.
"Fobbit" is a derogatory term for the lily-livered desk-jockeys who remain within the confines of a Forward Operating Base, rather than going out and doing the real soldiering; the pen-pushers, as opposed to the door-kickers. And Gooding is the fobbitiest of them all, spending his days writing and rewriting press releases, trying to shape the narrative of the war into anodyne nuggets suitable for Mom and Pop back home to consume over their breakfast.
Around Gooding, Abrams gives us a handful of broadly drawn tragi-comic characters. So we get Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret, exasperated at the ineptitude of those around him; obese mummy's boy Eustace Harkleroad, Gooding's immediate boss, who suffers nosebleeds amid the storm of paperwork; and Abe Shrinkle, an incompetent captain with a knack for doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Abrams's biography on the book's jacket states that he spent 20 years in the US Army and served in Iraq as part of the public affairs team, so he clearly knows what he's writing about. That comes across in the telling details and description; he certainly evokes the antagonism between fobbits and foot soldiers well, and his depiction of the idiosyncrasies of FOB Triumph, their base in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, is sharp and has the ring of authenticity.
But the author fails to create any focus or forward momentum to his narrative. Towards the end, we get mildly involved in the race towards the war's 2,000th American victim, a number the press are very excited about. But it's too little too late in terms of hooking the reader.
And worse, Abrams's satirical swipes are tame. Surely everyone already knows that armies have large spin-doctoring departments to massage their image and message? The cynicism of that activity is hardly ground-breaking news, yet Abrams delivers it as if it's a brand new and outrageous revelation.
At least the passages on cynical press manipulation are engaging (particularly one in which Gooding coaches a soldier on how to tell his "heroic" story). In comparison, the rest of the comedy relies on heavy-handed slapstick and fart, piss and crap jokes, none of which made this reviewer laugh once.
Harvill Secker £12.99Reuse content