There hasn’t exactly been a glut of fiction dealing with the current war in Iraq—understandable, as most wartime fiction is written after the war it covers is long over. A current war is vast, unknowable, and uncertain. Only afterward, long after the last bullets have flown, does a war obtain a natural narrative: its beginning, middle, and end. Nicholas Kulish’s flawed but fascinating novel Last One In manages to curtail this by covering only the opening weeks of the war, all the way from the first invasion to George W. Bush’s ill-fated aircraft carrier appearance (that of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner).
Kulish is clearly positioning his novel as an updated analogue to classic absurdity-of-war novels like Catch-22 and, more directly, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and while his workmanlike, awkwardly expositional, and somewhat flatfooted prose style (example: “‘You’ll find something,’ Jimmy said quietly. It felt so inadequate. ‘Yeah, and even if I do ...’ Tim said, trailing off. They both knew that with the seismic shifts in print media and the slave wages at the snarky Web sites, Tim would pull down half of what he needed to support his family”) prevents his novel from reaching the level of those works, there is enough wit and perception shot through it to make it a more than worthwhile read.
The story concerns Jimmy Stephens, a New York gossip reporter, who, through a series of snafus and coincidences, finds himself at the business end of an ultimatum: either embed with a platoon of Marines in Iraq, or get fired. Jimmy chooses to go to Iraq, and his utter ignorance about any and all wartime procedures effectively mirrors the reader’s. Jimmy’s naiveté has another nifty function: at numerous times during the narrative he asks the Big Questions that everyone else is either too jaded or too afraid to ask, and every so often this leads to a response that’s so direct it almost knocks you out cold, as when a current embedded reporter tells him:
Every couple years we find an excuse to invade one of these banana republics, and we barely remember why afterward, like the morning after a drunken one-night stand ... This military costs close to a trillion a year. We have to justify that expense.
Stephens goes on to compare this phenomenon with an off-Broadway theater that spent way too much money on a smoke machine for a performance of The Tempest and now must bend over backwards to put smoke in all their shows, whether it’s needed or not. The comparison is so perfect that it’s never going to leave my head, especially whenever a politician expresses a desire for “military action” against some nation or another.
Much of the novel consists of Jimmy’s ride into Iraq with a small Marine platoon, and they’re the usual collection of stereotypes: the untried kid eager for action who just can’t handle it when it finally happens, the grizzled veteran, etc. It’s to Kulish’s credit that he occasionally is able to break through these stereotypes inventively and present these Marines as somewhat of individuals: 19 year-old Ramos’s mission to gather as much abandoned Iraqi booty as he can and sell it on eBay to help his wife and child is the kind of resourceful upending of war fiction cliché that makes this book stand out.
While there are some unfortunate lapses into slapsticky pratfalls near its end (Stephens’ panicked live-across-the-nation phone call to CNN during a bombing raid is so tonally inconsistent with the rest of the book that it’s amazing an editor let it through), Last One In nicely combines an outsider’s look at the current quagmire in Iraq with obvious and not-so-obvious references to classic war novels to come up with something that, while not exactly a classic, is certainly a distinguished piece of work, and certainly more perceptive about the war than any 24 hours of cable news might be.