Phil Klay’s MISSIONARIES is a hell of an interesting read, though it often works better on a nonfiction rather than on a literary level. Let me explain.
Klay is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the author of REDEPLOYMENT, a collection about veterans that earned enormous accolades. MISSIONARIES is a fairly ambitious followup, the result of six years of research. In this novel, a war reporter in Afghanistan, war veterans turned military contractors, narcos, paramilitaries, and intelligence officers in Colombia evaluate, experience, and try to counter the endless cycle of violence and drug trafficking.
The story contains a great deal of fascinating information, written with authority and flair and backed by solid research. It has a documentary feel to it at some points, a brooding SICARIO feel at other points. I love how Klay doesn’t posit easy answers or inject a moral narrative. He just tells you how it is, and how it is is very, very complicated. For me, this is where the novel really shines, in how it holds up for inspection a slice of the War on Drugs as an endless, cyclical war. This is my favorite kind of fiction, where I learn something without feeling like I’m in school, and where I’m exposed to engaging and interesting ideas, of which MISSIONARIES has plenty.
Where the novel works less for me is there are a lot of characters, and despite connections here and there, they don’t really tie together until deep into the last act. I don’t mind a sprawling story, but it needs to tie together thematically early on and eventually through the plot, ideally sooner than near the end. MISSIONARIES has a theme, though I’m not sure what it is other than the War on Drugs became the War on Terror and is now one unending global war, often fought outside the news headlines. Each of the characters is in one way or another an elite playing their part in the game, and we never see them face any real moral dilemmas about the dirty game they’re playing. And the way everything ties together, with a central conflict that doesn’t reveal itself until the last act and then gets resolved pretty quickly and without much fuss, makes this novel more a powerful snapshot of people and ideas than a coherent narrative.
So overall, A+ for ideas and good storytelling at the ground level, more a B or B- for characters and the way the story comes together. In short, I liked it a lot for its positive qualities, and I’m gonna check out his REDEPLOYMENT.