Falcons on the Floor by Justin Sirois (review)
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Reviewed by
Falcons on the Floor, by Justin Sirois Publishing Genius Press, 2012

On American fiction, Anis Shivani, with characteristic spleen, recently pronounced, “There is only small writing, with small concerns, and small ambitions. . . . [T]he serious writer is trained to look down on politically aware fiction: that’s just journalism. There are no awp awards there.” For Shivani, domestic realism and its overly precious drama of the individual psyche has replaced engagement with politics, ideology, and their expression in the kinds of events that make headlines, shake lives, and redraw borders.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, a bar. To a veteran of the most recent war in Iraq, I described the plot of Justin Sirois’s Falcons on the Floor. Lifelong friends Salim, wired and westward looking, and Khalil, an impulsive and flamboyant chaser of his own local celebrity, flee their hometown of Fallujah to avoid being drafted by the Fedayeen into the front lines of a fight against American forces. Salim and Khalil follow the Euphrates west to Ramadi, where they are convinced they will be safer. It is a portrait of wartime Iraq that grew from Sirois’s correspondence with Iraqi refugee Haneen Alshujairy.

The veteran’s reaction was unequivocal: “The New York Review of Books will eat that shit up.” His tone communicated “shit” as excrement. Falcons occupies an impossible space between critics’ desires for a great topical novel and the public’s suspicions that any such novel is poisoned by opportunism and the author’s partisan politics. It is an impossible space because it is easier for critics to dream of Platonic ideals—and perhaps for Shivani, the novel he is calling for is the novel he is writing—than to engage with and bring to the public’s attention what has been written: this uneven, ebullient, and moving work. A must-read.

Yet Falcons almost sinks itself in a prologue that would raise Shivani’s hackles. It is narrated by an American teenager whose awe of his military-bound brother marks him as a future grunt in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This prologue parallels the action of the story proper: a hastily considered trek, a landscape drowned in hazard, and arrival at a consequential threshold. [End Page 173] Specifically, the crush object of the soldier has suffered a family misfortune, and he decides to console her in person; however, a snowstorm has cut off roads and phone lines. Within the limiting perspective of an adolescent, the drama is one of the character’s own invention, and in turn, his mock-heroic walk through the woods is easily telescoped into insignificance by a skeptical reader. Couldn’t he just wait a day or two? Sirois, as if aware of this, overwrites: “I walked with my head down. The ice-sharp wind slicing hairlines in my shin bones.” Heavy-handed assonance wrecks these opening lines.

When we reach Khalil and Salim in Fallujah, Sirois has calibrated his tone within a less obtrusive, functional register. After the dreadful excitement of surveying the landscape of war dawning in Fallujah and the propulsively written flight of the duo from the city—“Salim knew if he stayed in Fallujah he would die”—the story’s tempo slows in a second beat that unpacks the mutual histories of both characters as Salim types notes into his laptop on the banks of the Euphrates:

Here’s a list of the three things I’d wish for if we found a lamp with one of those magic genies in it:

  • —a high speed internet connection.

  • —headphones. I forgot my headphones.

  • —a hot fudge brownie ice cream sundae from tgi Fridays.

    You can blame my mother for the last one, too.

Worrying about the state of his laptop battery, fervently wishing to be able to withdraw from the physical world and into the agency and identity he finds online, Salim is as American as apple pie. The mind of a middle-class Iraqi fleeing his home has to be, by at least a degree, more tangled than this; consequently, the more time Salim spends self-psychologizing, the more the authenticity of the story is jeopardized.

The miracle of Falcons is that while there...