First published on 3:AM Magazine (8th August 2012) //
Framed like a weatherworn snapshot of Iraq taken just after the moment of invasion, poet-novelist Justin Sirois’ new book tells the story of two friends escaping Fallujah, making their way West on foot to Ramadi, through miles of soldier-filled desert.
Opening up with a brief chapter titled ‘Before the war’, Sirois details the domestic life of a young American soldier, memories coming back to him as he makes a snowy, late-night excursion to visit an unwitting girl that he likes. He is awkward, unsure of himself, the younger brother of a former Gulf War Marine. He recounts the week before his brother left for boot camp, receiving the key to his secret lockbox, a gun concealed within. Sirois neatly employs this technique to draw the reader in by showing them something familiar. Then he pans out and looks at the same image, but from a different perspective.
It’s a fine touch that contextualises what follows. We are introduced to two Iraqis, Khalil and Salim, as they contend with their new reality. They resolve to get out of harm’s way, to quit working as a watchman for insurgents, and a reluctant propagandist for the resistance, respectively. With their slightly jaded history of friendship, Khalil being the impulsive, wild-eyed optimist and catalyst for bad situations – a kind of toned-down Neal Cassady – and Salim the introverted, thinking man, they set out to follow the dark Euphrates, winding with it as it snakes toward what they hope is their freedom. Khalil has a cousin there, he says, well-respected, connected, who can help them get away from the violence.
During this journey we learn more of their past. Sirois’ ear for a good line allows one lyric to follow another. Through Salim he finds an outlet for an occasionally romanticised view of their plight, contrasted often by the bleak realism of encountering enemies of all kinds in the desert; roving tanks, exploding shells, scorpion tails. There is a constant threat, their journey told in hypnotic sequences, through fear, delirium, salty desert sun sweat. Sirois’ skill as a poet bleeds through, many sequences are written from Salim’s perspective as he types before the screen of his fading laptop; notes to himself, reminiscences of his mother, and revelations for “his girl”, Rana, whom he has never met, and knows only through the internet. He pines for Rana, thinks of her constantly, and writes long passages of text, with Sirois playfully including a chapter titled ‘Going to the Dogs: Selected Word documents from the laptop of Salim Abid’.
Sirois’ steady voice reveals, with occasional humour, the journey and the strained friendship. Salim and Khalil are both young at different times. Oftentimes, one will be naïve, the other wise. One will know what to do with a boat, the other becoming its passenger. It is a well-crafted, dual bildungsroman, telling the story of both Salim and Khalil, separately and together, as they eventually get on their way to Ramadi. Sirois’ voice is so unremittingly steady and even, each line whispering into the next, that occasionally his attempts to ratchet tension trail through almost unnoticed, and what could have seemed an opportunity for an effective climax, peters out somehow and passes us by. Do we expect more from the scene where two characters from the West and the Middle East finally meet? Possibly. But this is the consistent understatement with which Sirois delivers his narrative.
Apart from its obvious value in and of itself as a frequently striking piece of prose, Sirois’ novel is also notable for its perspective. After an unrelenting slew of movies and books telling the invasion story from American or British or Western points of view, this is a narrative that does at least some justice to the people of Iraq by telling it from their side. In the acknowledgements, Sirois writes: “This novel would not exist without the editorial support of Haneen Alshujairy. Haneen and her family fled Baghdad in the summer of 2003 as Iraq succumbed to sectarian violence.” The additional interviews at the back of the book confirms a lot of these feelings, that a story about the Iraq invasion must be predominantly from the Iraqi perspective. It is “their war”.
But Falcons on the Floor is not an overtly “political” novel, in that it refuses to take sides. It is however “political” in the sense that it does not concentrate solely on how the invasion has affected American lives. Instead it presents its story in such a way that opens up the possibility of thousands of other stories that have gone untold, thousands of other, more worthwhile stories than the likes of The Lucky One or The Hurt Locker. And used here, Sirois’ introduction of the young American at the outset brings a strange element of the ominous overseer. We wait for the American to reappear. We know, surely, that at some point, he must. Or is it a MacGuffin? Are we meant to read and expect this reappearance, as Sirois keeps this all-seeing eye beaming in our minds, the two sides of the invasion under his watch; Iraq in his hands. It is an intriguing element that turns this potentially dry, desert novel into one of glittering mirages, oases, and possibilities.