American War is a very, very good book. I happened upon it shortly after its publication at Walden Pond Bookstore in Oakland. It’s got a plain black cover emblazoned with the image of barbed wire across its top; it’s quite arresting.
Then I opened the thing and, for several days, I was utterly riveted and flummoxed by this excellent novel. Its premise is this. In the year 2074, after climate change has drastically altered the shorelines of the United States (Florida is mostly gone, the San Francisco Bay extends all the way south to the San Joaquin Valley, et cetera), Congress (now housed in Columbus, Ohio, as DC is waterlogged) passes a bill (way too late) finally outlawing fossil fuels. Many Southern states object and there commences a Second Civil War, which rages for 21 years. Within this context, our protagonist, young Sarat Chestnut, is raised in a desolate, poverty-stricken part of Louisiana and grows and comes, as the war rages on, to play a central role in the whole thing.
That’s the crux of it. I’m loathe to say much more, because this is undoubtedly a novel that I hope is read far and wide, and its draw, to my mind, comes as much from its relevance in our current, on-the-cusp-of-climatic-disaster world as from its good, old-fashioned suspense and cleverness. El Akkad constructs a powerful coming-of-age story that also grips the reader with its long, graceful, narrative arc and its slow-building tension, all compounded by its urgently relevant political statement.
Before I close, though, I want to reiterate just how fascinating and powerful I found the premise of this novel. There’s a wonderful map at the book’s beginning, showing the United States at the start of the Second Civil War. Maybe it’s just because I’m kind of a map nerd, but I found it utterly terrifying and interesting to study this map, which was clearly constructed quite carefully. Furthermore, this imagined dystopian future here in this imagined dystopian US is beautifully crafted as opposed to how things have gone elsewhere in the world. For example, we readers learn maybe a third of the way through the book that, in the couple of decades following 2016, there occurred various failed attempts at subsequent Arab springs throughout the Muslim world, all leading to an eventual successful revolution, ultimately deposing the parade of military dictators who have dominated that region’s politics in our time. In 2073, though, there’s a unified multi-state union throughout the Arab world known as the Bouazizi Empire, and they planned ahead for climate change. For example, much of the future Saudi Arabia is covered with vast solar farms. Consequently, this part of the world is fairly well off, and there are dinky little boats full of refugees attempting to make the dangerous crossing south across the Mediterranean from Europe in search of a better life in North Africa and the Middle East. I found this little snippet to be delightful in that it turns our modern status quo on its head.
Another little snippet I found to be quite powerful—though not delightful—has to do with a fictional off-shore prison known as Sugarloaf operated by the US government. It’s on an island that was formerly part of Florida, and El Akkad structures the scenes in this hellhole clearly based on real-world depictions of the US prison at Guantanamo. These scenes are made even more rough and frightening when you consider the thought experiment that El Akkad is conducting here. He’s asking us to imagine what it is we’re capable of in our treatment of others, and what it is we could be capable of when we begin to think of portions of our own country as other.
Now, I attended a reading/lecture in Berkeley a few weeks before reading American War, and El Akkad explained, quite eloquently: “The central trick of the book is that it takes events that are happening elsewhere in the world and brings them close to home…. There is no foreign suffering. How they over there react to injustice is the same as the way that we would. And the privilege to believe otherwise is just that: a privilege…. Everything in this book has, in some other place, already happened.” I’ve nothing to add. The man himself describes his book best.
One final thing I will mention, though, is a particularly brilliant little sentence from page 306. A character from the Bouazizi Empire is speaking to Sarat and explaining how he has inserted himself into the American Civil War. Sarat basically criticizes him for sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, to which he replies, “Come now, everyone fights an American war.”
In conclusion, it’s an important book, and it has the added bonus of also being a very good book. Read it promptly.