Very early on in Escape from Baghdad!, before we realize how many murderous forces and literary genres are about to crash into each other, two friends are holed up in a safehouse in the South Ghazaliya neighborhood. Saddam Hussein has just been deposed; outside, the Madhi Army has just finished another minor street battle with a rival militia, and our heroes Dagr and Kinza are in possession of a stash of black market weapons and a captive: one of Saddam's head torturers.
As Dagr and Kinza — one a former economics professor, the other a reckless killer — debate the morality of executing a torturer, the U.S. Army comes knocking, "in their heavy armor and helmets, capable of kindness or casual violence as the mood took them, unreadable, random, terrifying." They bring the promise of salvation or perpetual detainment or sudden death, all hanging on the thread of whim.
That moment, fraught with tension, viciousness and humor, perfectly sets the tone for the rest of Escape from Baghdad! We follow Dagr, Kinza and their captive, Hamid, through increasingly hopeless and intricate misadventures. On the way to uncover a mythical stash of treasure in Mosul, they make a pit stop to track down a seemingly supernatural serial killer stalking the streets of Baghdad. Nothing works out as planned, of course, and the narrative gathers momentum as another street battle breaks out, things go from awful to apocalyptic, and the two friends become embroiled in a crescendo of diabolical mytho-scientific plots.
Throughout it all, Hossain brings a poetic and brutal precision to the page. His writing is whimsical as he delves into an ancient, hidden library, then brisk and chaotic when another gunfight unfolds. Dagr, Kinza and the entire supporting cast — from ancient alchemists to drug-addled Marines — live and breathe on the page. Hossain imbues each character with hopes and fears, histories and sorrows: These are messy, desperate and complex humans, struggling to make sense of a world that collapses beneath them at every turn.
Escape from Baghdad! puts its heroes and monsters right in the middle of a crossfire of competing tyrannies. Explosions of violence interrupt philosophical debates, which are then punctuated by moments of slapstick hilarity — and somehow, the pieces all fit together. I'm not sure whether Escape From Baghdad! is a war novel with elements of horror or a supernatural mystery set during wartime, a satire or an homage, and I don't really care. The magical elements stay delicately intertwined throughout, never breaking the fragile veneer of cold hard reality. The multilayered histories and scientific analyses push the plot forward without weighing it down. I found myself literally cackling on the train reading this book, only to turn the page and get swamped by a devastating moment of loss.
In a time when American literature is still struggling to process the horrors of the wars we've unleashed onto the world over the past decade, Saad Hossain has given us a hilarious and searing indictment of the project we euphemistically call "nation-building." With nods to Catch-22, Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau and the Golem myth, Escape from Baghdad! weaves fantasy, absurdity and adventure into a moving counter-narrative to the myth of the just war.
Daniel José Older is the author of Half-Resurrection Blues (book one of the Bone Street Rumba series) and the upcoming young adult novel Shadowshaper.