A few weeks ago, my fiancée and I attended several readings/talks at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Much to my giddy pleasure, I got to see Jonathan Lethem, Rushdie, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, T. Geronimo Johnson, and several other writers I love. During a break in the day, I strolled through the gauntlet of booths that various publishers and other vendors had set up as part of the festival. At the Unnamed Press table, Saad Z. Hossain’s Escape From Baghdad! caught my eye. I’d never heard of it (or of him, for that matter), but I purchased myself a copy. It’s his first novel, and hats off to the good folks at Unnamed Press for giving audience to Hossain, who is sure to gain an even larger one if he keeps writing great books like this one.
Structurally, Escape is basically two stories wound together. There are two principal protagonists, Dagr and Kinza, friends who are entrepreneurs of sorts dealing in ammo and fuel and information in war-torn Baghdad. The novel begins with their being promised a handsome reward by a Colonel Hamid, former torturer in Saddam Hussein’s now-deposed regime, if they smuggle him to Mosul. This main storyline—a modern war-ravaged swashbuckling adventure—is supplemented by a parallel tale, that of Private Hoffman, a US Marine gone rogue trying, in his own befuddled way, to help Dagr and Kinza. The two stories meet in the end, explosively.
Escape reads like a Hollywood blockbuster, and it seems to be marketed in that way, with the title’s exclamation point (!) and author Jerry Stahl’s review prominently quoted on the cover (“…the hippest, weirdest…book yet to emerge from the…Iraq war” and “a hold-onto-your-hat tilt-a-whirl joy to read”). And it is indeed a slam-bang action-laden adventure story that would easily lend itself to the medium of big-budget film, but I was more than pleasantly surprised to discover that it also offers so much more than that. In the midst of all of its intrigue and action sequences, Hossain drives the whole thing with smart, underlying seriousness, with an ingenious backstory regarding a curious artifact known as the Druze watch, and with characters that are delightfully lovable in spite of being, in some cases, terribly violent. And perhaps that is its greatest strength. The two principal protagonists, Dagr and Kinza, won the heart of this reader straightaway. Their friendship is a soft and lovely thing in a setting so torn asunder by destruction and mayhem, and Dagr’s recollections of his life (and his family) before the mess of the war are just heart-meltingly good.
I’ve deliberately avoided talking much about specific plot points here lest I spoil the fun for anyone. Read this book. It’s not a game-changer, it won’t smash apart the literary (or even the pulp literary) canon, but it’s a fun, funny, smart, heart-warming, tender, and adventurous tale, and it tells some important truths about the world we live in and the seminal geo-political conflict of our time.