The Kills: The Massive by Richard House

thekillsThe Kills: The Massive by Richard House (Picador, August 2014)-The US release of The Kills is actually four books in one, and after starting off with a bang with Sutler, it’s time to move onto Book 2: The Massive. The Massive is the “city” at Camp Liberty that all that money that disappeared in Sutler was supposed to fund. It’s Iraq, it’s hot, bullets are flying, IEDs are par for the course, and while the work pays well (if you can get it), it can also be backbreaking and emotionally difficult. House’s introduction to The Massive is grueling, detailing the lives, and deaths, of a group of men called Unit 7, operating under Rem Gunnersen (recruited by old Geezler himself.) It’s a grim opener, but a nonetheless fascinating rundown of lives ruined by HOSCO and their own bad decisions, and it goes far in setting up the main story itself.

Rem’s marriage is stagnating and his business is failing. He owes employees money and is reeling after one of them commits numerous thefts while on the job. Cue Paul Geezler. He’s got an offer that Rem finds hard to refuse, and although Rem has done contract work in Kuwait before, this is a different animal. But, the money is good and he wants to make things right with not only his employees, but also his wife, Cathy, who’s having issues of her own. Geezler, however, wants more than just to give Rem a job. He wants Rem to keep an eye on the operation and report back to him. Rem agrees. After completing a questionable bit of “training”, Rem is sent to Amrah City, more specifically, the Amrah City Section Base (ACSB) and spends quite a bit of time there before finally ending up, with the team that he hand picks, at Camp Liberty, aka Camp Crapper. This is where the burn pits are, and every manner of substance is burned there. The team is in a remote area of Iraq, with substandard equipment, no clear instructions as to what exactly they’re supposed to be doing, and among some of the most dangerous substances known to mankind.

Then Stephen Lawrence Sutler shows up with plans for The Massive…

Sutler, the first book, dealt with Sutler’s flight from Southern-CIPA during an explosion and subsequent frame job for the theft of millions of dollars. The Massive is the story that leads up to that flight, but we’re not in Sutler territory anymore. This is Rem’s story. I’m sure you probably think that the work of US contractors in the Middle East isn’t very interesting. You’ll think differently after reading this book.  It’s fascinating. The narrative alternates between Rem and his men at Camp Liberty, and his wife, Cathy, back in Chicago. Cathy, to her dawning horror, does some digging of her own into the kinds of substances that her husband is burning in Iraq, and eventually begins corresponding with family members of Rem’s team.

Hieronymus Bosch has got nothing on these burn pits. This is not the stuff of fiction, and they’re just now starting to recognize the health horrors that might be a very real consequence of manning these open pits, that use jet fuel, and other things, in the burning of toxic substances. Do a search online for Iraq burn pits and you can find some mind blowing photos. But, I digress…

Rem is a man who cares too much doing a job where one can’t really afford to care, and after Sutler arrives, he feels everything start to slowly slip through his fingers. To him, the idea of building a city out in the desert, from scratch, is a ridiculous notion and struggles to understand his team’s place in this seemingly outlandish scheme, while his wife does her best to understand what might be happening to Rem and his men, and as a gulf widens between them that’s more than just physical distance.

This is heady, intense, sometimes melancholy stuff, made even more so by its basis in reality. Big themes like the aftermath of war, government responsibility, and just generally things that can sometimes be so big, so awful, that our eyes just skim right over them, come together into one fantastic, very tense narrative, and he does all this without sacrificing a bit of his characters’ humanity, while never underestimating their capacity for greed. It was also quite interesting to see Sutler from a completely different point of view. Of course, House continues his sly references to events in the other three books. These books are very smart,very scary, and very cool. Richard House, frankly, should be a household name. Stay tuned for Book 3: The Kill.

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