Phil Klay’s New ‘Missionaries’ Is An Ambitious Novel Of Ideas

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Penguin Press


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Though it’s clear from the start that Klay will unite the characters in Colombia sooner or later, waiting for Lisette and Mason to get there takes a certain amount of patience. So, unfortunately, does reading Abel. He seems set up to be the novel’s heart, and certainly his arc is the most moving, but where Klay writes Lisette, Mason, and Juan Pablo with total, snappy specificity and irreverence, in writing Abel, he shies entirely from humor, and often from detail. Without levity or specificity, Abel feels somewhat less than alive.

Luckily, this issue never leaks from Abel’s sections. Lisette, whose arc contains the majority of the book’s plot, is inquisitive and pleasantly bitter. Mason, who is the civilian reader’s guide to the many forms of 21st-century American war, is a diction-mixing Everyman, equally able to describe his dad’s coal-mining work as a «prayer, made not with words but with blood and sweat» as he is to recall the «pimped-out palaces» he raided across Iraq. His sections are filled with sneaky humor and self-deprecation, compelling even when they drift far from the plot. The best sections, though, feature Juan Pablo, whose old-school conservatism is at clear odds with the book’s politics, yet gives Missionaries its intellectual core.

Juan Pablo is a second-generation soldier, a weary tactical expert and a right-wing ideologue terrified his college-age daughter will stray left, which she inevitably does. His first attempt to keep her in line is to give her Che Guevara’s diaries, which he finds laughable; the chapter in which he mocks Che’s military strategy is both a decent history lesson and a highly entertaining set piece. His later efforts to protect her get him into deep trouble, most of which functions to move the plot forward.

‘Missionaries’ is a deeply ethical novel, and one that often pauses to question the purpose of war and possibility of redemption for combatants of all kinds.

Juan Pablo’s true role, though, is to explain the cross-agency, surveillance-based, merciless system of warfare that the U.S. developed while helping Colombia fight Pablo Escobar. Now, Escobar is gone and Colombia is approaching peace, which Juan Pablo fears will mean no more American aid and, therefore, «no more ability [for the Colombian military] to project power around the country.» American war, here, is an internationally marketable tool; it is detached, both in Juan Pablo’s abstract language and, in his worldview, from both ethics and human rights.

Missionaries is a deeply ethical novel, and one that often pauses to question the purpose of war and possibility of redemption for combatants of all kinds. It is also a very well-built narrative, if not quite a «perfectly engineered machine,» to borrow Mason’s description of a well-executed military raid. The plot may not kick off till the book’s halfway point, but once it moves, it moves. Klay is able to write kidnapping and murder without sensationalism; he never loses track of his moral questions, even while toggling between interiority and thriller-paced action. He maintains clarity through a sequence of events so intricate and scenes so populous that the vast majority of writers — great ones included: John Le Carré is often guilty of this — would forfeit the reader’s understanding. Most importantly, Klay tends well to his many characters, giving each not only a voice, but a resolution. Missionaries may wobble and drag at the beginning, but by the end, its humanity, like its purpose, is clear.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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