Fiction: An American Pilot, a Muslim Teenager and a Talking Dog All Caught in an Absurd War

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“Red Birds” centers on a wisecracking and callous American pilot, Major Ellie, who crashes his $65 million warplane in the desert on his 637th bombing mission. After wandering without water or food for eight days, the sand “blinging” around him, he is picked up by a 15-year-old Muslim boy named Momo who is chasing down his lost dog. Momo is a wily, entrepreneurial fellow always on the lookout for a business opportunity; he quickly realizes that the fallen American, who claims to be an aid worker, could be a useful asset — but not in the way you’d imagine. The novel forgoes international intrigue and ISIS-style executions for a smaller, more domestic tragicomedy. Through chapters structured as connected and overlapping monologues, we are introduced to Momo’s family, his pet dog and an earnest and beautiful U.S.A.I.D. consultant — all of whom live in a U.S.A.I.D. refugee camp that Ellie was supposed to bomb. It turns out Momo’s elder brother, Ali, has recently gone missing; the hunt for Ali becomes the central engine of this book.

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As they zero in on Ali’s whereabouts, the characters speak again and again about the absurdity of a war in which “carpet-bombing” is “followed by dry rations and craft classes for the refugees,” a war that has dragged on so long that the language of PTSD and cultural sensitivity has ossified into meaninglessness. This is a novel not so much about war as about the exhaustion of thinking about war.

The trouble is that Hanif wants to have it both ways: to be an earnest elegist as well as a fiery caricaturist. Ultimately he succeeds at neither. The novel’s emotional world is as flat and parched as the desert in which Ellie crashes; the monologues inefficiently repeat information and action. Mostly, this is a failure of language and tone: Hanif never convincingly distinguishes his characters’ voices. Ellie is meant to sound like a tough guy on the run from his emotions, but comes across, fatally, as a Pakistani doing bad American he-man standup, slinging a stilted slang. Ellie’s American commander is even more of a caricature, a “Team America”-style puppet who declares that the refugee camp is “a real bad place full of bad bad people.” Perhaps there are Trumpian echoes here; but I was disappointed to see Hanif reaching for the easiest jokes.

The Muslim characters are equally hazy. Momo appears at first to be a regular swaggering teenager, but he quickly breaks character by deploying phrases like “morass of moral corruption” and “potted history.” Such vocabulary is not just out of keeping with his background — he’s been reared on American junk culture — but his temperament: He’s a worldly entrepreneur with little time for bookish language.

The only character who stands out in this farrago is Momo’s dog, Mutt, granted monologues of his own. Once we suspend disbelief about a talking dog, we don’t worry too much about the integrity of his voice, even if it sounds very much like Hanif’s. (At one point Mutt expounds about how “big rich nations get a bloody nose in far-off countries and start slashing the milk money for poor babies at home.” Good Mutt!) Moreover, unlike the other characters, who have outraged and sentimental takes on the war, Mutt possesses a genuinely estranged perspective. Speaking about bombings and the search for survivors beneath the rubble whom he’s tasked with sniffing out, he can be wistfully Pavlovian: “One saved lives. One got a biscuit as a reward. Life was good.” When others spout complex theories about why the Americans have ceased their bombing raids, he thinks: “Maybe they got bored of bombing us?” An incident in which Mutt gets zapped while peeing on a live electric pole is the most memorable scene in this novel — and also where it should have begun: at Page 157, dropping its excess load of exposition.

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