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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dark at the Crossing (2017) by Eliot Ackerman


Book Review
Dark at the Crossing (2017)
by Eliot Ackerman

  Dark at the Crossing is the second shortlist selection for the 2017 National Book Award.  Author Eliot Ackerman is an ex... Marine? Dark at the Crossing is a straight forward take on identity and the viciousness of war in the early 21st century.   I can't get over the fact at Ackerman, who presumably is not an Iraqi-American who obtained his American citizenship by serving as an interpreter to US Special Forces operating in Iraq, wrote a book whose protagonist is that.  In other words, Ackerman, the white, military(!) author has written a book about a character: The Iraqi American (or Afghani) national who has, in some sense, turned his back on his homeland, and, in a certain sense, collaborate with the enemy (of his own people.)

  This is a fascinating situation for someone to face- the figure of the Iraqi-American interpreter/collaborator is not unfamiliar in fiction and non-fiction, and it seems to me that this character- of whose Ackerman's protagonist is an example, has the potential for canonical greatness.  But certainly that tale won't be written by an American Marine.   It's possible that we won't get any novels from direct participants, but it's also possible that great art requires distance from the fog of current events, and that the events of the past decade(s) will inspire a generation of "post-war" novelists in the same manner the aftermath of World War II inspired a generation of French writers. In 2017, we are still in it, and so spectator-participants like Ackerman may be all that's on offer.

  Dark at the Crossing is the first book to deal directly with the events of the Syrian Civil War, but it's the third book (American War by Omar El Akkad and Exit West by Mohsin Hamed.)  Both American War and Exit West are firmly in the realm of speculative fiction- American War is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and Exit West is built around the idea that doors between poor and rich regions of Earth start popping up overnight.  Haris Abadi- Ackerman's protagonist arguably qualifies as an anti-hero.  I've seen capsule summaries state that Abadi travels to the Turkish-Syrian border to "fight for the Islamist against the Syrian regime;" but that mis-states and simplifies the motives of Abadi, who travels based on wanting to join the Free Syrian Army, a US backed, secular (or at least not crazy Islamist) and only later changes his mind.

  Aside from whether Dark at the Crossing should win the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction (I would say not) there is the separate consideration of whether Ackerman has such a win- or a Booker Win, or a Pulitzer Prize, in his make-up.  There, surely the answer is yes.  The idea of a military veteran writing credible literary fiction is a mouth-watering prospect.  For example, the market for "military history" is almost equal to the demand for all other forms of history put together- The Civil War, World War II, Vietnam- these are subjects with a built in audience in places like airports.   You see flashes of this potential in his American characters.

  An intuitive reader can sense, simply from the length of the book (barely 200 pages). and the pace of the narrative (Chapter One: Abadi is robbed of all of his money), that things are not going to end well, ultimately you are just hoping for an ambiguous ending.  You would think that Ackerman has been told that his ticket to the best seller list is a military bildungsroman, and you can see by Dark at the Crossing that he is resisting that fate.   He deserves credit for forgoing the easy money of the best-seller list. 

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