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Phil Klay's New 'Missionaries' Is An Ambitious Novel Of Ideas

Penguin Press

In 2014, Phil Klay released Redeployment, a collection of swift-talking stories emerging from — though not based on — his service in the Iraq War, to rapturous acclaim. He won the National Book Award, received uniformly glowing reviews, and earned frequent claims that Redeployment would be to Iraq what Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried has become to Vietnam. No small amount of pressure to put on an emerging writer, excellent though that writer may be.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Missionaries, Klay's thorough, forceful, and ambitious first novel, took him six more years to complete. It is slightly more surprising, and entirely admirable, that Missionaries represents a major stylistic shift from Redeployment, in that it is, quite explicitly, a novel of ideas. Through fiction, Klay sets out to introduce readers to the system of counterterrorist warfare the United States military has developed and exported worldwide, from Colombia, where much of the novel takes place, to the Middle East and beyond. Missionaries is a portrait of a gigantic, porous, mutable, and seemingly mission-less war — and, as such, is gigantic and mutable itself, though Klay never loses sight of his goal. As a result, the novel's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: It tries to be as all-encompassing as its subject.

Missionaries gets off to a slow start. It has four major characters — Abel, a Colombian ex-paramilitary fighter attempting to reintegrate into society, Lisette, a jaded American wire reporter, Mason, a sweet if straitlaced Special Forces medic, and Juan Pablo, a conservative Colombian lieutenant colonel mired in concern about both his idealistic daughter and Colombia's impending 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group — and Klay introduces us to them one by one, rotating between points of view.

Though it's clear from the start that Klay will unite the characters in Colombia sooner or later, waiting for Lisette and Mason to get there takes a certain amount of patience. So, unfortunately, does reading Abel. He seems set up to be the novel's heart, and certainly his arc is the most moving, but where Klay writes Lisette, Mason, and Juan Pablo with total, snappy specificity and irreverence, in writing Abel, he shies entirely from humor, and often from detail. Without levity or specificity, Abel feels somewhat less than alive.

Luckily, this issue never leaks from Abel's sections. Lisette, whose arc contains the majority of the book's plot, is inquisitive and pleasantly bitter. Mason, who is the civilian reader's guide to the many forms of 21st-century American war, is a diction-mixing Everyman, equally able to describe his dad's coal-mining work as a "prayer, made not with words but with blood and sweat" as he is to recall the "pimped-out palaces" he raided across Iraq. His sections are filled with sneaky humor and self-deprecation, compelling even when they drift far from the plot. The best sections, though, feature Juan Pablo, whose old-school conservatism is at clear odds with the book's politics, yet gives Missionaries its intellectual core.

Juan Pablo is a second-generation soldier, a weary tactical expert and a right-wing ideologue terrified his college-age daughter will stray left, which she inevitably does. His first attempt to keep her in line is to give her Che Guevara's diaries, which he finds laughable; the chapter in which he mocks Che's military strategy is both a decent history lesson and a highly entertaining set piece. His later efforts to protect her get him into deep trouble, most of which functions to move the plot forward.

'Missionaries' is a deeply ethical novel, and one that often pauses to question the purpose of war and possibility of redemption for combatants of all kinds.

Juan Pablo's true role, though, is to explain the cross-agency, surveillance-based, merciless system of warfare that the U.S. developed while helping Colombia fight Pablo Escobar. Now, Escobar is gone and Colombia is approaching peace, which Juan Pablo fears will mean no more American aid and, therefore, "no more ability [for the Colombian military] to project power around the country." American war, here, is an internationally marketable tool; it is detached, both in Juan Pablo's abstract language and, in his worldview, from both ethics and human rights.

Missionaries is a deeply ethical novel, and one that often pauses to question the purpose of war and possibility of redemption for combatants of all kinds. It is also a very well-built narrative, if not quite a "perfectly engineered machine," to borrow Mason's description of a well-executed military raid. The plot may not kick off till the book's halfway point, but once it moves, it moves. Klay is able to write kidnapping and murder without sensationalism; he never loses track of his moral questions, even while toggling between interiority and thriller-paced action. He maintains clarity through a sequence of events so intricate and scenes so populous that the vast majority of writers — great ones included: John Le Carré is often guilty of this — would forfeit the reader's understanding. Most importantly, Klay tends well to his many characters, giving each not only a voice, but a resolution. Missionaries may wobble and drag at the beginning, but by the end, its humanity, like its purpose, is clear.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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