The Sandbox, David Zimmerman’s 2010 novel about American soldiers at war in Iraq, didn’t go unnoticed upon publication. It was reviewed in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, for example, and both papers found good things to say about it. The Sandbox has had a quiet afterlife, however: never to my knowledge has it been name-checked approvingly by other war-writers, mentioned alongside other works by fans, critics, and scholars of the war-writing genre, nor considered for Hollywood movie-making. Even after Zimmerman, who teaches in the MFA program at Iowa State, released a second novel featuring an Army soldier, 2012’s Caring is Creepy, his name seems to have barely registered in the contemporary war writing collective awareness, part of which includes Time Now. Ignorant of Zimmerman and his work, I have several times erroneously proclaimed Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen as “the first Iraq War novel.” But hearing-tell of The Sandbox a year-or-so ago, I kept an eye out for it and recently spotted a copy in my local library. After checking out and reading The Sandbox, I’m happy to make amends for past slights and place Zimmerman’s novel at the forefront of the contemporary war novel tradition, while also rendering praise where praise is due.
The Sandbox is narrated by a junior enlisted soldier named Toby Durrant, an infantryman assigned to a platoon manning a middle-of-nowhere outpost in Iraq named FOB Cornucopia, or Corn Cob, as the soldiers call it for short. Corn Cob is built upon the ruins of an ancient Iraq fortress and located near an abandoned toy factory, both of which figure heavily in the plot. Though Durrant’s platoon suffers indirect fire attacks within Corn Cob and IED attacks while on patrol, they seem to have no real mission other than maintaining US “presence” in the area. Durrant is popular among his fellow soldiers, save one, Lopez, a by-the-book goody-goody E4-promotable. Lopez suspects that Durrant, who has befriended an Iraqi orphan living alone in the abandoned toy factory, is offering information about US capabilities to local insurgents, and he relays his suspicion to the unit’s lieutenant and platoon sergeant. The platoon leadership, already enormously uptight and remote from the men they lead, are glad to make Durrant a scapegoat for the unit’s tactical setbacks, because, as Durrant begins to sniff out, the lieutenant and sergeant are party to a criminal endeavor, along with a high-ranking general, to abscond with millions of dollars of US reconstruction money they have hidden near the outpost—the real reason for Corn Cob’s continued existence. Also smelling the money is a Military Intelligence captain, assigned by someone somewhere to investigate suspected wrong-doing on Corn Cob, who seems more interested in enriching himself through blackmail or other shady means than recovering stolen money or building a case against corrupt members of the chain-of-command. Somehow also involved is a shifty Iraqi named Ahmed, who works on the base as a mechanic and as Durrant’s companion on frequent shit-burning details, which also figure significantly in the plot. Ahmed seems to know a lot about things above his pay-grade and to have ingratiated himself with the FOB leadership, and he accesses Corn Cob through a secret door in the perimeter wall that only he knows about, but exactly who he is and what his motivation is goes unexplained.
Durrant must make sense of all this—really, try to survive it–from his disadvantageous position in the lower ranks, while trying to save the Iraqi child he has befriended, and at the same time dealing with being dumped by his fiancé, who also informs him that she is aborting the child of Durrant’s she is carrying. Durrant is likeable in a snarly, snarky way that seems true to the way many junior soldiers are in life and almost all of them are in war fiction—his combination of smarts and attitude is very much the voice of “Joe,” the “E4 Mafia,” and the “Terminal Lance” found in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey, as well as Lieutenant Black’s in John Renehan’s The Valley: young white male soldiers turned contemptuously anti-authoritarian by the incompetence and hypocrisy of their chains-of-command. Durrant’s thoughts about things are not complex—I would have liked to have seen more psychological exposition of how it feels to be a soldier who learns that his own unit leadership not only thinks he is a traitor but wants him dead—but Zimmerman excels at depicting Durrant in conversation with other characters, in terms of crafting naturalistic dialogue that both drives forward the plot and allows the minor characters’ personalities to emerge. In particular, Durrant’s friendship with his best friend, a black guy named Rankin, his cagey discussions with the MI captain, and, most of all the Dear John letter he receives from his fiancé, along with a subsequent phone conversation, are all very well done. Zimmerman also does well with physical depictions of soldier life and combat and, MFA instructor that he is, prolifically generates intriguing metaphors and similes:
“The sky is the color of a nicotine-stained finger.”
“…he’s already about as popular as a wet fart.”
“The wind smells like unwashed hair.”
“His shadow looms on the wall behind him like a dark, unhappy doppelganger.”
Pretty good, that last one, but to return to the plot–a secret door in the perimeter wall, really? Also not helping things are screwed-up military details, such as references to soldiers shining boots—I don’t think that ever happened in Iraq, where from the beginning soldiers were issued suede desert boots that didn’t require polish—and to “Kiowa” helicopters that are said to transport passengers and which feature door gunners—uh, no. Even more exasperating is the novel’s end, which resolves nothing: the last few pages describe an enormous battle, but ends in medias res, as if Zimmerman ran out of time or ideas to bring it to a more satisfactory close. We don’t learn, for example, how or if Durrant survives to write the novel, for example, or if the MI captain, the lieutenant, the platoon sergeant, Ahmed, or the Iraqi orphan live or die, let alone if one of them gets away with the loot. Many critics of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction have hypothesized that never-ending nature of the wars have made narrative closure in books and films about them difficult; the coitus interruptus conclusion of The Sandbox might serve as Example 1 of the problem. If The Sandbox had an artier, edgier feel, such an ambiguous, indeterminate finale might have worked, or if it were a little more integrated with the storytelling ethos—in the manner of the famous last shot of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the Paul Newman and Robert Redford characters are frozen in place as they charge into a hail of lawmen’s bullets—it also might have succeeded, but that’s not the case here.
Assessing the strengths and weakness of The Sandbox, the sub-headline for the LA Times review states, “The dialogue and description of the troops’ plight are realistic. But the conspiracy they get caught up in is absurd.” That’s spot-on, but to end on a positive note, Zimmerman gets a lot of things right while being the first to confront the major obstacle with which war writers afterwards would continually struggle, namely, devising a realistic and compelling plot commensurate with their belief that the lives of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are worthy of novel-length portraiture. Recasting the story of a soldier at war as a search for riches recalls movies such as Three Kings and Kelly’s Heroes, while previewing Aaron Gwyn’s later novel Wynne’s War, while the idea that a war story might also be a police procedural foreshadows novels-to-come such as The Valley and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood. Centering the action on a remote FOB brings to mind Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and Zimmerman’s many excellent depictions of vehicle operations anticipate Michael Pitre’s Fives-and-Twenty-Fives. In addition, many scenes described in The Sandbox—IED explosions, shit-burning details, sandstorms, memorial services, and scorpion fights, for just a few examples—would pepper the pages of future war fiction.
In a 2010 interview, Zimmerman offered an intriguing glimpse of the war-writing business as he tried to find a publisher for The Sandbox. After finishing his novel in 2007, he faced a series of rejections and requests to radically revise it before Soho finally accepted it for publication. “…at that point,’’ he states, “Iraq movies were doing terribly and almost all of the [rejection] letters mentioned that. They said, ‘Nobody’s going to buy any books about Iraq right now from the fiction standpoint.'” Zimmerman did what he had to do to break the impasse, and if the results were not perfect, he established patterns and first depicted scenes that the writers after him cannot claim to have devised, but only tried to better.
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox. Soho, 2010.