While many embedded reporters wrote about the Iraq war from the perspective of American troops, Anthony Shadid took on a rarer mission two years ago: He wanted readers to understand how it felt for Iraqis. He talked to newly trained police forces in the Sunni Triangle, to intellectuals and to average men and women who waited out the "shock and awe" campaign in their homes.
The result of this first-rate reporting—for which the Washington Post reporter won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004—is Night Draws Near, an intimate and essential book that reveals why America failed to win over hearts and minds, in spite of toppling Saddam. One man Shadid interviews puts it simply: "What gives them the right to change something that's not theirs in the first place? I don't like your house, so I'm going to bomb it and you can rebuild it again the way I want it, with your money? I feel like it's an insult, really. What they're doing to us, they deserve to have done to them, their children."
The complaints heard so often in the news—the lack of security, clean water, electricity—are repeated here over and again, but when attached to people they become tangible. Perhaps it looks different within the fog of war, but with hindsight it seems impossible not to interpret these oversights as precursors to a nationwide insurgency. "Iraq had now joined Palestine and Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, all countries where a besieged Muslim population was pitted against a more powerful foe," Shadid writes.
Night Draws Near reveals that this war might have gone a different way—especially, it would seem, if we had listened to the people of Iraq as Shadid did from the beginning.
The Whatever Generation has finally got a voice, and it belongs to Dwight Wilmerding, the 28-year-old hero of Benjamin Kunkel's first novel, Indecision. Stuck in a holding pattern between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood, Dwight drifts toward his thirties without a care in the world. While his classmates load up on kids and mortgage payments, Dwight squats in frat house squalor with two friends in a downtown Manhattan apartment. Nights are spent downing malt liquor in homage to the inner-city youth they never had. Weekends unspool in one long decadent bolt of time, with no commitments or convictions to mar the weave. Even though this is 2002, the only thing reminding them of the nightmare of 9/11 is the procession of "terror tourists" filing past their window.
Indecision finally gets off its ratty old couch of social observations when Dwight gets "pfired" from his tech support job at Pfizer and decides to celebrate by going to Ecuador—or is it Colombia? He's not sure, but it's not like the detail would change a thing because Dwight suffers from abulia, or chronic indecision. At about the same time he leaves the country, Dwight begins taking Abulinix, an experimental drug designed to put a little backbone in his life. As it turns out, he could have used a little modulation in the dosage, and what follows feels like the end to a Charlie Kaufman film—a madcap burst of humor and foreigner-abroad hijinks, complete with sex, machete-wielding and a few too many unwieldy speeches. Is it the drugs talking or is that Dwight's newly located conscience? Who knows? But as one would say in the universe of this charming, if chilling, book: It's all good, man.
Stubbornly, as though they were paid by the page, contemporary poets resist the traditional boundaries of lyric form. One can no longer write a simple eight- or 10-line poem today. But the more-is-better rule works about as well for poetry as it does at the Olive Garden—which is to say, not well at all.
To wit, check out Princeton University professor Susan Wheeler's latest collection, Ledger. Rickety two- and three-page poems dissolve into the kind of airy profundities that only John Ashbery can make beautiful. Like America's godfather of experimental verse, Wheeler is an inveterate sampler—the book references everything from Herodotus to Count Chocula—but the flavors don't quite go together.
Every now and then, Wheeler settles down to prove she can cook up a traditional lyric, such as the lovely and mournful "Loss Lieder," which reminds us how poetry should taste: intimate, beautiful, bought with blood. Would that the rest of this collection felt this way.
If you thought the Wapshot family of John Cheever's novels needed help, wait until you meet the Joneses, the lubricious, Thatcher-era clan who animate Gerard Woodward's American debut, I'll Go to Bed at Noon. They don't just like to drink; it appears to be their reason for existing. Colette, the family matriarch, kicks off each morning with a bottle of barley wine and a fistful of Valium. Her brother can often be found sipping one of his home brews, the likes of which one will not find on even the most adventurous wine list: tomato cherry and, my favorite, cucumber cordial.
Woodward's novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is more than a catalog of drinking sprees. With its blitzed anger and barroom harangues, it shows how despair floats downstream in family life. The folks at the bottom of the falls are Colette's two sons, Julian and Janus. The former accompanies his mom to the pub in their suburban London neighborhood, where he does his homework. The increasingly morose Janus, on the other hand, spends his time neglecting his talents as a pianist to do menial labor, from which he is always fired. In one of Woodward's rambunctious, comic detours, Janus steals the water pipes out of the family home and sells them to go on a drinking spree with his brother-in-law Bill, a butcher with Marxist leanings.
While I'll Go to Bed at Noon has plenty to say about dysfunction and drunkenness, it expands to paint a wincing portrait of Britain during the '70s and '80s. It was a time of boredom and loneliness, when three-day work weeks were, for many working-class citizens, a grim reality. Woodward's glimpse of this world is often so bleak that Americans might miss the humor, but it's there, and it lingers long after the novel's long rambling night comes to an end.