Stand back, I’m gonna explode with praise. But first, a plug: If you live in Washington, go see David Finkel read from The Good Soliders tomorrow night (Monday, Oct. 5) at Politics & Prose. Now for the praise explosion, really just a mash note:
If you’ve ever been a feature writer at a newspaper in the last 10 or 20 years, then you’ve probably spent some time wishing you could report and write like David Finkel. I suffered a strong case of Finkel fever back in the early to mid 1990s, when he was writing for The Washington Post Magazine. His articles about Rush Limbaugh “dittoheads” and another about how one suburban family watched television still stick with me; I can tell you right where I have photocopies of those pieces.
A little more than a week ago I finished reading his new book, The Good Soldiers. I’m still thinking about what’s in it. In the book, David spent part of 2007 and 2008 with the 2-16 battalion in Iraq, during the “surge.” I don’t know him as well as I know others at the Post, but I do know him well enough to know that this book really took it out of him, that he sweated every word. I ran into Joel Achenbach, another Post writer, on the street the other afternoon and he had a copy of David’s book with him. “It makes me want to be a journalist,” Achenbach sighed. (The joke being, Joel is a great reporter and writer himself. But Joel and I both know the hard truth, deep down: We’re not nearly what Finkel is.)
Now, I also know what you’re thinking: Ugh, an Iraq book? Now?
I too have started and then set aside books about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the Middle East, or the rise of jihad, books that won prizes and were/are being made into movies, books that everyone was reading and that got great reviews. I came to each and every one of those books with a well-meaning desire to learn something about the post-9/11 world, or to just admire the prose and reportage of a kind of work I’d never be able to do. Some of these books got past my “50 page” test, but quite a few didn’t. (I give any book that I acquire fifty or so pages, about one hour of reading time, to get me in there. If it does, then I continue reading it in 50-page chunks. But I also give myself permission to get out if it’s not happening for me.) The 50-page test can be cruel, especially when I know the author, but I apply it even then.
The 50-page test does not even count here. I blazed through The Good Soldiers in three sittings. I felt every moment — smelled Iraq, could almost taste its grit, took in its sadness. I got to know the 2-16 enough to know that I’ll never know enough about the military mindset. I was most drawn to a man in the book, an Iraqi who works as a translator for the 2-16 command. This is so much more than an embedded-journalist war book. If you saw The Hurt Locker, then The Good Soldiers is a natural companion. I got to the end and thought, now I get it. (Not about the politics of the tragedy of the war, but about what it’s like to simply be in a war.) My favorite passage is from pp. 66-68, when the soldiers are supplying their written reports to an attack on their patrol which ended in a soldier’s death. Each one signs off with “Nothing follows.”
You know how you can tell that this book is so much more than another Iraq book, right away? There is NO subtitle. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but almost all nonfiction books get subtitles. The marketing departments at major book publishers at some point all came to firmly believe that a nonfiction book without a subtitle will not attract an audience, because they won’t know what it’s the hell about. The only nonfiction books I can think of that don’t get subtitles are where the author’s name is famous enough (Joan Didion, Dave Eggers) to do the job just fine.
So when you write a nonfiction book, there’s always an argument about subtitles (and titles) and editors and sales people go back and forth (usually the writer gets fed up) with different six or seven word combinations that all try to get the point across. (By all rights this book should have a subtitle that goes: A Battalion Carries Out the American Surge or something like that. See? Even just typing one up takes things toward the dull.)
When David showed me the jacket of his book a few months ago I said: No subtitle? Dude, you’re golden. It’s the surest sign that a book is good. It needs no explaining.
At David’s book party two Sundays ago, a bunch of his friends and colleagues and family gathered in a back yard of a lovely home, surrounded by tall trees, bathed in that wonderful late-summer evening light. David said that the 2-16 had just shipped out again. We were sipping wine and talking about books and life and the newspaper and whatever; they were on their way back to Iraq. Something’s obviously not right about that. Nothing follows.