Elsa Pitts, née Emerson, is 19 and pregnant with her second child when she’s finally asked the question she’s been waiting to hear ever since arriving in Los Angeles, via bus, more than two years before: “Have you ever thought about acting?” The truth, she promptly admits, is that she’s thought of little else. From the moment in 1929 when a then 9-year-old Elsa first set foot on a stage at the summer-stock theater her parents owned and operated in Door County, Wis., she was hooked, “high”—as Emma Straub writes in her fantastic first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures—”as light and full of air as an escaped balloon vanishing over the treetops.”
Luckily for Elsa, her interlocutor is none other than Irving Green, the second in command at a successful Hollywood studio; in short order, he changes her name to Laura Lamont, dyes her blonde hair black and turns her into a silver-screen star.
Straub’s own rise has been hardly less meteoric. The 32-year-old daughter of best-selling horror novelist Peter Straub, she published a well-regarded collection of short stories, Other People We Married, in 2011. And Laura Lamont is sure to increase her fan club: It retains the charm and intimacy of her previous work, but the scope is enlarged and the plot is down-right cinematic—it follows its heroine’s career all the way through to 1980. “The idea came from an obituary I read in the New York Times, for the actress Jennifer Jones,” Straub explains. “This novel isn’t about her, but that’s where I started. . . . I wanted to get way, way outside my own life and experiences.”
But for David Abrams, the author of Fobbit, his own life experiences were exactly the point, becoming rich fodder for his fiction. In fact, Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding, the primary protagonist of this 2005-set Iraq War satire, is close to the bone. “Chance is a midcareer soldier who’s never been to war, and that was me,” the author says. “He works in a military task-force headquarters in Baghdad, writing reams of useless press releases for civilian news agencies that will probably never read them. That was me, too.” Stationed, for 14 hours a day, in a cubicle in one of Saddam Hussein’s many air-conditioned, marble-floored palaces, Gooding at first views his deployment with, as Abrams writes, “equal parts dread and annoyance—fear of being killed at any moment, yes; but also irritation at the fact that he was now on what felt like a yearlong camping trip.” With his lavender-vanilla body wash and dust-covered rifle, he is surprisingly sheltered. But, inevitably, the horrors occurring on a near-daily basis outside the base’s fortified walls begin to creep in.
And, unlike his alter ego, Abrams—who retired from the U.S. Army in 2008—isn’t afraid to go beyond the Green Zone: He’s created a small platoon of characters that allow the reader to infiltrate martial life at every level. (Comparisons to M*A*S*H are all but inevitable.) Many have Dickensian-sounding monikers, like the dangerously hapless Captain Shrinkle, unable to make a single decent decision on the terrorist-targeted, civilian-filled city streets that pass, in this war, for a battlefield. Clearly, Abrams’ firsthand knowledge of his topic is not just useful, but essential. The writer’s vivid, jargon-peppered portrait of life on a Forward Operating Base—and of the FOB’s many base-bound inhabitants, known, derogatively, as Fobbits—is so compelling precisely because it feels very real, albeit improbably funny.
Like Straub’s book, it’s a rare fictional close-up on a world that’s more often documented in newspapers and magazine articles. Together, these two debuts prove that while truth might occasionally be stranger, a novel making such deft use of character and environment can be every bit as true.
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Here, a trailer for The Crown, a historical thriller that has just been released in paperback. Read more about it in the slideshow.