The debut novel from the National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment, Missionaries might be the perfect novel of all time. Phil Klay’s Missionaries examines the globalization of violence through four characters with interlocking stories and the harsh conflicts that define their lives.
Klay is an Iraq War veteran and the author of a short story collection, Redeployment, about the military’s misadventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After its publication, Redeployment was listed as one of the best books of 2014. Klay has now realigned his sites to examine not just the conquests of the Middle East and Central Asia but also unpacks the global conflicts one step further and attempts to provide readers with a complex and thought-provoking argument about American foreign policy over since the beginning of the Global War on Terror.
The basic plot is this: a group of Columbian soldiers prepares to raid a drug lord’s safe house along the Venezuelan border. The soldiers are watching him with an American-made drone and are planning to strike using military tactics taught to them by American soldiers, soldiers who’ve perfected their counter-insurgent skills while on deployment in Iraq.
Missionaries starts slowly with a familiar scenario – a journalist living in wartime Afghanistan, Lisette, can’t seem to get it together to file her news briefs on time. She’s had enough of the war, the sand, the loss. Lisette manages to leave Kabul, texts with an old boyfriend, a soldier turned contractor, and attempts to regain a footing in the world. She asks the old boyfriend if there are any wars in the world that America is winning, and the soldier-turned-contractor replies with a one-word answer, “Columbia.”
This is where the novel truly begins and where Klay’s masterful deft and skill with words truly begins to shine. Klay has a serious knack for setting scenes, providing meaningful irony, and showcasing deep human empathy. He does all of this so covertly that the weaving of the stories presented in Missionaries feels as much like it’s unfolding naturally as if the story simply has to be told.
The novel spans three decades, examining the lives of Young Abel, whose family is slaughtered in a Columbian village but who manages to rise in the ranks under his brutal boss, Jefferson; Juan Pablo, a colonel in the Columbian military whose daughter Valencia confront Jefferson; two American soldiers Mason and Diego, groomed to fight at the frontlines and who know how to adapt to a war whose core central mission is foggy at best; and Lisette, the reporter who brings everyone together.
Without a doubt, Abel is the central core of Missionaries. He struggles to be the force of good in the face of Jefferson’s brutal savagery and spends much of the novel feeling doomed – in part because Jefferson’s charisma is so electric. Brutal warlord Jefferson is at once both kind and sadistic. Abel struggles with his loyalty to Jefferson throughout the novel, wrestling with his own motivations.
The lurid appeal of this delayed universe is similar to Cormac McCarthy in its bleakness. But Klay isn’t just attempting to unravel the void of morality. He’s trying to unpack the violence in Columbia and relate it directly to the fiasco that has been Afghanistan, and he’s able to do that because of his own experiences in combat.
Klay’s sentences are meaty, compact, and rich. Dazzling details seem to exist in both the myopic and the overly dilated sense, allowing Klay the ability to zoom in on this world that he’s created or pan back when needed.
And underneath it all, Klay’s book serves as a reminder that war and idealism ultimately create who we are – both on the field and once home again. Missionaries is an excellent example of what can follow a great debut collection. It is intricate, ambitious, and converges in the way real life often does. The ceaseless engine that drives the novel forward is the same engine that’s pushing more troops forward – American foreign policy. Missionaries attempts to understand why. It’s both horrifying and refreshing and forces its reader to reflect on our own national policies and the implications of American power abroad.