- The Cradle and the Bayonet
Good minimalist fiction creates an impression. Often working through parataxis, the writing doesn't bludgeon. Instead, its timing is subtle; it is sly, leaving readers seeking missed details, layers, emotions, and affect—in short, its humanity. Justin Sirois's Falcons on the Floor, composed with editorial support from Haneen Alshujairy, is witty and darkly funny when it needs to be, and its sad and disastrous moments are also perfectly timed. Falcons on the Floor is the story of two Iraqis, connected through their childhood, their country, and their loyalty to each other, who escape Fallujah on the eve when war takes the city hostage as Coalition forces fight the Fedayeen in the War in Iraq. Salim and Kahlil—both men young enough to be persuaded (read: forced) to join the Fedayeen, but old enough to take advantage of its resources—risk walking through the desert along the Euphrates to seek shelter in nearby Ramadi, a city that, represents hope and freedom and (for Salim) love, even amidst war's oddities and destruction.
The novel does more than use a specific prose style to make its imagery harsher, more real. The form allows the humanity of Salim and Kahlil to seep through every page. While the escape, near death, and survival Salim and Kahlil are narrated through skillful and slim, economic prose, their experiences are only the tip of the iceberg—as Hemingway once theorized—with the most powerful emotions buried just underneath the surface, begging to be unearthed. Sirois knows his craft.
Falcons on the Floor owes a debt to many great wartime writers (Hemingway, O'Brien, Vonnegut), and there is a strong modernist aesthetic: It is a story of men fighting to maintain a moral code in the face of inevitable destruction. The narrative is chronological and straightforward; Salim's perspective dominates, and Sirois seamlessly integrates Salim's electronic journal, kept on his laptop and written in the desert, as the larger narrative of the trip from Baghdad to Ramadi. (In the story's ending, Salim's journal plays a critical role as the lives of Iraqis and Americans intersect, not for drama, but to transform perspective.) Falcons on the Floor never, ever leaves you alone.
Setting aside the beautifully written landscapes, wartime dark humor, and how gunships and explosions punctuate deeply human moments, the novel centers on Salim and Kahlil. I oversimplify, but Kahlil is as much Salim's id as Salim is Kahlil's ego, enhancing narrative and also highlighting distinct reactions to the siege and its brutality.
The spotlight first goes up on Kahlil, made infamous because his face appears in the center of an AP photo depicting the lynching of Coalition soldiers. Everyone in the city knows him, and he carries the photo with him as a badge of honor. His initial reaction to the battle and the buzz in Fallujah is with vigor, excitement, and daring: "'And in a war zone, we'll never have this opportunity again! It's an adventure,'" he says to Salim. We learn, though, that Kahlil's excitement masks deep-seated fear and immaturity: "He's impossible to look at," Salim writes of Kahlil, "He follows no code, and if he does, it's so corrupt it would be unreadable to the most sophisticated infidel in all Fallujah. No morals, no nothing." Readers initially sense that Kahlil is the McDonald's employee who neglects his duties to check his cell phone, which is a nervous tick Sirois gives to Kahlil to indicate a conflicting desire for fame.
That Salim bemoans Kahlil's lack of "code" tells us more about Salim than anything else. "Salim knew that if he stayed in Fallujah," Sirois narrates, "he would die. He would be forced to fight in the uprising." While outwardly angered by Kahlil's recklessness, Salim at first takes on the death, destruction, and arbitrariness of war with fear and disgust, but as the desert climate takes over his body, Salim espouses stoicism and level-headedness (though his choice to bring Kahlil is anything but level-headed...