Soho: 350 pp., $25
Although the film “The Hurt Locker” earned the industry’s highest awards, some critics said that the movie was so riddled with inaccuracies that it could not be taken seriously. The film’s reckless protagonist, Sgt. 1st Class William James, leader of a bomb-disposal team, consistently performs acts that would get most soldiers relieved of duty. His crazed behavior culminates in a miles-long nighttime run, in fatigues, through the heart of Baghdad, during the height of the insurgency. Somehow, no one gets hurt, and James, who has, we are told, defused some 870 bombs, is never punished. Many forgave this grossly unrealistic depiction of war because director Kathryn Bigelow was able to create a gripping, tense and moving story of men in combat.
Readers of David Zimmerman’s debut novel, “The Sandbox,” may find themselves juggling similar concerns of believability and entertainment. “The Sandbox” focuses on a young Army private, Toby Durrant, serving in a remote desert in an unnamed country that’s clearly a stand-in for Iraq. Durrant, along with his friend and tent-mate Rankin, is among 40-odd soldiers stationed at a base positioned within an ancient walled fort. The only landmarks nearby are a destitute village, an abandoned toy factory and a formidable mountainous region dotted with caves, where insurgents may be massing. The base’s troops are undersupplied and, save the occasional IED attack or mortar volley, they’re profoundly bored. Staged insect fights and masturbation leaven the ennui.
So far, so good, as Zimmerman adroitly depicts this isolated moonscape — a place as liable to produce hallucinations and heat exhaustion as it is to churn up sandstorms that last for days. Zimmerman’s characters seem to be slowly disintegrating in this harsh environment: A child’s body on the highway “looks more like a lump of shortening melting on an iron skillet”; the “pink stub” of Rankin’s truncated finger “shines as though he’s polished it”; a prisoner’s eyes “resemble dollops of dirty motor oil resting atop egg yolks.”
Even better is Zimmerman’s grasp of grunt speak — the enlisted man’s vulgar poetry — whose inspirations are boredom, machismo, anger and homoerotic humor. It’s the language of “Full Metal Jacket” and “Jarhead,” the type of discourse that flirts with nihilism, as if each joke is a competition to see who will get closer to the abyss of reason. The result is some extraordinary conversation, particularly the chapter (the best parts are unprintable here), in which Zimmerman, in only 2 1/2 pages, covers the addiction of war, the banality of phrases like “support the troops” and what makes some veterans unable to return to normality in civilian life. On this last subject, consider the following exchange, beginning with a soldier named Doc Greer:
“ ‘We’re no good for normal life now and this ain’t no life at all.’
“ ‘We’re war orphans,” Rankin says.’
“ ‘War mutants more like,’ Doc Greer says.”
Though not a veteran, Zimmerman is from a military family, and he’s talked to enough soldiers to know the vernacular. He uses this knowledge to create a parade of jive-talking men without a clarifying purpose. They content themselves with the campfire-style narration of a brutal firefight or the rote task of cleaning their guns twice a day (the omnipresent sand demands it).
Yet there is a problem. After establishing an impressive roster of characters, Zimmerman’s authorial solution to their shared malaise is to enmesh them, particularly Durrant, in a conspiracy that becomes more absurd and unrealistic the more it’s unraveled.
In brief: The inept Durrant can’t resist punching antagonistic fellow soldiers and is trying to rescue a possibly imaginary feral child scavenging in the tumbledown toy factory (the savage-but-redeemable native seems to be a war-story cliché). His behavior leads to his becoming a tool for higher-ups who will forgive his infractions if he helps them embezzle occupation administration funds for an unaccountably corrupt U.S. general (who could easily, and legally, make his millions by going to work for a defense contractor or by charging five- or six-figure speaking fees). In the process Durrant becomes a suspected traitor — never mind that only one American has been charged with treason since World War II — and, like in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, a villainous captain spends a few minutes explicating the entire conspiracy 30 pages before the novel’s end.
Also strange is that part of the scheme involves secret payments to buy tribal leaders’ loyalty. Zimmerman treats this as a scandal, yet a quite public, and lauded, aspect of the Anbar awakening involved paying Sunni militias and tribes for their cooperation.
It’s the same paradigm resorted to in the movie “Green Zone”: An unflashy premise is embellished with kinetic melodrama. Following suit, “The Sandbox’s” climax involves apocalyptic violence and the specter of that evil, unnamed general. But this book’s most searing episodes take place in the minds of these men, in their raging speech and sleepless nights. By ultimately rejecting these appealing but uncinematic notions, an obviously gifted writer has made a more screen-ready novel, but not a better one.
Silverman is a contributing online editor to Virginia Quarterly Review.