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Prayer at Rumayla (2002): The Hurt Locker

Charles Sheehan-Miles, Prayer at Rumayla (Xlibris, 2001)

[originally posted 7Mar2002]

A tank sits, burning oil wells in the background, as if in contemplation on the book's cover.

Twelve years ago. The beginning of my long friendship with Charles.
photo credit: Amazon

I had some trepidations before cracking the cover on this one; with a very few notable exceptions, I’ve never been much of one for war novels, which tend to either fall into the knee-jerk anti-war camp or the “sis-boom-bah rah-rah-rah” camp. Prayer at Rumayla leans towards the left side of the division, but prefers to let the images and events therein do its preaching, which already puts Sheehan-Miles ahead of 95% of the pack. Despite the book’ s “A novel of the Gulf War” subtitle, this is more a case of the Gulf War being a driving force for the main character’s actions after he’s back in the U.S. after combat.

Chet Brown, a tank loader in the Gulf War, is home after a particularly nasty engagement in Iraq. While there, he had no real goals other than to get home; now that he’s back, he keeps wondering if he can go back over. His dissatisfaction with his former life and the changes in both himself and those around him lead him to spend a month’s leave travelling, rather than staying in Georgia, and the three central chapters of the novel (about half the book) recount Chet’s trip to New York and back.

More than anything, this is a roadtrip novel, with the usual conventions of the genre. Chet finds out about himself by meeting a series of others who reflect various parts of his personality (the obvious comparison is to On the Road here, but I found my mind drawn to various post-Vietnam novels, especially those of Lucius Shepard and J. K. Flowers, rather than the land-of-Camelot stuff Kerouac was on about). However, Sheehan-Miles makes one big departure from the genre (to say what would be a plot spoiler), and that gives the book a freshness and realism that are unexpected in the modern road novel. The book is unpredictable because it plays on the predictability of its genre, and the (lack of) twist at the end is all the more powerful for not bowing to convention.

My only real problems with the book have nothing to do with the narrative itself. There are a rash of proofreading errors and more than one case where an editor should have slapped the author upside the head for sentence construction problems. Neither is overly common, however (one crops up every ten pages or so), and so the distraction value is kept to a minimum.

A promising first novel. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more. *** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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