Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Colorado Review - Falcons on the Floor - review by Joe Hall

Falcons on the Floor, by Justin Sirois
Publishing Genius Press, 2012
reviewed by Joe Hall


On American fiction, Anis Shivani, with characteristic spleen,
recently pronounced, "There is only small writing, with small
concerns, and small ambitions [T]he serious writer is trained
to look down on politically aware fiction: that's just journalism.
There are no AWP awards there." For Shivani, domestic realism
and its overly precious drama of the individual psyche has
replaced engagement with politics, ideology, and their expression
in the kinds of events that make headlines, shake lives, and
redraw borders.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, a bar. To a veteran of the most recent
war in Iraq, I described the plot of Justin Sirois's Falcons on the
Floor. Lifelong friends Salim, wired and westward looking, and
Khalil, an impulsive and flamboyant chaser of his own local
celebrity, flee their hometown of Fallujah to avoid being drafted
by the Fedayeen into the front lines of a fight against American
forces. Salim and Khalil follow the Euphrates west to Ramadi,
where they are convinced they will be safer. It is a portrait of
wartime Iraq that grew from Sirois's correspondence with Iraqi
refugee Haneen Alshujairy.

The veteran's reaction was unequivocal: "The New York Review
of Books will eat that shit up." His tone communicated
"shit" as excrement. Falcons occupies an impossible space between
critics' desires for a great topical novel and the public's
suspicions that any such novel is poisoned by opportunism and
the author's partisan politics. It is an impossible space because
it is easier for critics to dream of Platonic ideals—and perhaps
for Shivani, the novel he is calling for is the novel he is writing—
than to engage with and bring to the public's attention what
has been written: this uneven, ebullient, and moving work. A
must-read.

Yet Falcons almost sinks itself in a prologue that would raise
Shivani's hackles. It is narrated by an American teenager whose
awe of his military-bound brother marks him as a future grunt
in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This prologue parallels the action
of the story proper: a hastily considered trek, a landscape
drowned in hazard, and arrival at a consequential threshold.
Specifically, the crush object of the soldier has suffered a family
misfortune, and he decides to console her in person; however, a
snowstorm has cut off roads and phone lines. Within the limiting
perspective of an adolescent, the drama is one of the character's
own invention, and in turn, his mock-heroic walk through
the woods is easily telescoped into insignificance by a skeptical
reader. Couldn't he just wait a day or two? Sirois, as if aware of
this, overwrites: "I walked with my head down. The ice-sharp
wind slicing hairlines in my shin bones." Heavy-handed assonance
wrecks these opening lines.

When we reach Khalil and Salim in Eallujah, Sirois has calibrated
his tone within a less obtrusive, functional register. After
the dreadful excitement of surveying the landscape of war
dawning in Eallujah and the propulsively written flight of the
duo from the city—"Salim knew if he stayed in Eallujah he
would die"—the story's tempo slows in a second beat that unpacks
the mutual histories of both characters as Salim types
notes into his laptop on the banks of the Euphrates:

Here's a list of the three things I'd wish for if we found
a lamp with one of those magic génies in it:

—a high speed internet connection.
—headphones. I forgot my headphones.
—a hot fudge brownie ice cream sundae from TGI Fridays.

You can blame my mother for the last one, too.
Worrying about the state of his laptop battery, fervently wishing
to be able to withdraw from the physical world and into the
agency and identity he finds online, Salim is as American as
apple pie. The mind of a middle-class Iraqi fleeing his home has
to be, by at least a degree, more tangled than this; consequently,
the more time Salim spends self-psychologizing, the more the
authenticity of the story is jeopardized.

The miracle of Falcons is that while there is a significant
amount of interior self-investigation, ultimately it becomes
something far different from a psychological novel. In its loose,
road-trip structure and anchoring friendship, it is much closer
to picaresque works such as Kim, Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn, and Don Quixote. In these works it is less important that
why the characters want something be sufficiently evidenced,
but that their desire and its pursuit be realistically dramatized
externally through their companionship. Every time Falcons
bogs down in Salim's thoughts, it is revived by the interplay
between Salim and Khalil. They are as callous and silly as any
pair of men who have spent their lives together:

—I wish we had some chicken, just a few bites is all I
need, I finally admit.
—Man. Some lamb kebab.
—Yeah.
—Marinated cabbage, cucumber.
—OK. That's enough.
—Pizza.
—Shut up, man. I say.

Lounging on the blankets, head to head . . . [Khalil]
pushes out a fart that's so impressive I can't believe he
did it on cue, and when I don't respond he asks what
happened.

Erom within the circle of their friendship, the dangers the pair
face take on a discomforting immediacy, whether it is being
forced by a Eedayeen leader to drive to the front in a shot-up,
blood-sticky truck or trying to read the ominous hieroglyphics
of the landscape as they follow the Euphrates: "To the north of
the farm there's a pyramid of cauterized date palms that've been
plowed and stacked on their sides and torched with gasoline....
We can't take our eyes off it, smoking like a dead black comet."
Like Twain's house and its dead floating down the Mississippi,
there is something close to scripture here, an image of original,
profound despair.

As the novel progresses Sirois handles the rhythm of their
journey with an increasingly sure touch, moving between the
comic and the horrible, charting the incremental punishment,
doubt, and disorientation flight inflicts on refugees as well as
the devastation war does not just to bodies and property but to
entire communities.

The terrible irony of this book is that while the desert inter-lude
deepens our understanding of Salim and Khalil and, crucible-
like, refines who they are and want to be, their hard-earned
and long-awaited arrival in Ramadi sets off a gripping, twisting
sequence where Sirois shows us how swiftly and decisively war
reduces each individual to simple categories: fighter, civilian.
We, with Salim and Khalil, endure, in the crisis of a single moment,
the wrenching consequences of these labels.

This moment strikes like lightning, because in its lead-up
Sirois allows Salim and Khalil to sprawl across the pages, to
remember and desire. In turn, the reader is lulled into thinking.
Yes, here we are in the psychological novel. A mind is turning
circles in the desert. Fingers are pressing keys on a laptop. There
is no door. There is nothing on the other side of a door. There is
no one with his or her head in a bag.

Reading Falcons is to witness the stunning, troubled metamorphosis
of one type of fiction into another. Our discussion of a new wave of 
politically engaged, outward-looking novels starts here.

1 comment:

Ayman Fadel said...

yes! I liked this one better than the one I wrote!