Peter is living in exile from his pregnant wife, still grieving his mother’s untimely death and increasingly troubled by the ongoing war crimes of the second Bush administration. His old friend Leonard has been sacked from his residency for drinking on the job. Both are eager to escape, debauching themselves in countries where they don’t know anybody and don’t speak the language. But a chance encounter suddenly highlights the pervasive presence of American imperialism even in the rural Caucasus, and a maddened Peter finds himself on an obsessive quest to prove his nation’s sins to its blithe populace – and hopefully, absolve himself in the process.
David Winner’s ENEMY COMBATANT circles around a cipher which it never truly engages: why does Peter do what he does? The plot wends its way through a number of notable set-pieces – an orgy of self-objectifying vice, an assault on an American military installation, carjackings and shootouts among them – without ever explaining why an American web developer with dead parents, a failing marriage, and no military background decides to involve himself in (or precipitate) such events. The text certainly sketches an arc, but it essentially waves its hand over the question; the pieces are laid out but never convincingly connected. This isn’t a failing per se, but especially given the fact that radicalization is both a clear theme here and a timely issue at this cultural moment – and Peter, seething with obsessive rage over the misdeeds of American government, hopping international borders with a gun in his hand, is definitely his own brand of radicalized – it feels like a missed opportunity.
Once the reader buys in, however, ENEMY COMBATANT is a surprisingly-thoughtful contemporary picaresque that manages to juggle amusement, revulsion, and shock. Although a fine copy-edit would resolve some small typos and issues with complex syntax, the text never loses its clear sense or relentless pace. That pace does come at the expense of deeper character work: Peter’s brain jumps from ruminations and memories back to the present without ever slowing down, preventing the parts from settling into a satisfying whole. But the text also makes a series of engaging structural choices that effectively maintain, enhance, and often frustrate tension, tied together with closely-observed prose that suits the characters of two emotionally-stunted American men, spiky instead of smooth. Although their actions should have international consequences, the protagonists and the prose are mostly concerned with the psychological and physical immediacy of their situation: sticky bodies, unbrushed teeth, rank odors; vomit, diarrhea, innards, interiors unable to be contained. Spiritual concerns intrude occasionally, only to be immediately undercut. The text ultimately revolves around the two men and their friendship – and it’s precisely for this reason that more time spent explicitly engaging with that relationship, or connecting the broader thematic concerns to their mental and emotional states as they traipse through Georgia, might give the whole a more satisfying coherence.
By turns fleshy, spiritual, meandering, and sure-footed, ENEMY COMBATANT remains consistently entertaining, if never quite enlightening.
~Dan Accardi for IndieReader