on Dark At The Crossing, a novel by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf)

For marketing’s sake, Elliot Ackerman’s second novel, Dark At The Crossing, has been described as a current day war story about the tumult in Syria with a love interest. But Ackerman’s actual subject is the making of choices under dire circumstances. How a choice may trigger betrayal or the recognition of one’s illusions or self-satisfaction or self-defeat. How helplessness and desperation enhance the felt necessity to eliminate all but one option. Dark At The Crossing is also a novel about delays and impediments – because as action is deferred, the profile of choice-making heightens even as its clarifying pattern can’t reveal its consequences.

AckermanCover.jpgThe novel’s backdrop is the failed revolution against Assad, three years in the past as the story begins. By this point, 90,000 were dead. (The war is now in its sixth year.) In the southern Turkish city of Antep, an Iraqi-American named Haris Abadi prepares to slip across the nearby border in order to take up arms with the Free Syrian Army. The crossing will ultimately occur, but not before Haris has encountered several characters who embody various interests in the danger zone.

Amir and Daphne, a married couple, have fled from Aleppo after Amir’s catastrophic decision to accommodate rebel fighters in their apartment building. Amir works for an NGO monitoring conditions in Syria. Marty, the NGO’s director, peddles his research reports to governments – and coaches a hockey team while the city’s parks are filled with Syrian refugees sleeping in the cold. Daphne wants to return to Aleppo where her daughter may still be alive – which triggers her attachment to Haris. Amir has no wish to return and fears his wife is deluded.

There is also “Saladin1984,” the digital name of Haris’ contact in Syria. In Kilis, the Turkish transit city, Haris learns that Isis (the Daesh) operates a secret recruiting office, while at the crossroads roving gangs of boys harass the traffic. The air and ground vibrate with the thump of artillery to the south. Early on we learn that Haris had worked for the Americans in Iraq, gained U.S. citizenship, and returned to Iraq to work as a translator in order to bring his sister to Lansing where he worked as a janitor at her school. When she becomes engaged to a wealthy student from the Emirates, Haris becomes determined to act with uncompromised moral purpose in Syria.

AckermanColor2.jpgNow living in Turkey, Ackerman was awarded a Purple Heart , the Silver Star, and the Bronze Star with Valor for his service in Iraq. Having sketched the main characters and their situations, I haven’t begun to indicate the artfulness of Ackerman’s observation, the tense utility of his sentences and dialogues, and his intuitive feel for the urgencies in anguish. Also, I haven’t betrayed the zigs and zags of his plot – though the novel’s greatest pleasures derive from postponing action and sustaining tension. One follows Haris’ daily movements as he lingers in Antep, awaiting his chance. The significance of past actions – those of Haris, Amir, and others – infect and inspire the present. This is why I take issue with Lawrence Osborne’s review of the novel in the New York Times in which he claimed that flashbacks “restrain its momentum.” Restraint is the novel’s secret sauce.

Although almost all of Ackerman’s characters are Middle Easterners, the novel’s contortions of conscience and bouts of immobility are strikingly American.
The Damascus Spring erupted in Deraa on March 6, 2011 after the Assad regime arrested and beat up 15 boys for painting graffiti about the Arab revolution. On March 18, several residents were killed in Deraa. By October, 2,900 Syrians had died and 10,000 were arrested. The Obama administration, which had supported such uprisings, now had only its good intentions and high-flown moral values to offer. But the administration's deliberations must have been excruciating. Think of Ackerman, an ex-soldier loitering in Antep, a citizen of a country that overturned the region, interviewing people of different persuasions, taking notes. His novel converts and enacts the emotional layering of his own experience -- the nuanced weighing of motives, choices both impulsive and long-weighed. How could it be otherwise?

Ackerman.jpgDark At The Crossing is written with exquisite care – for both its exactness of language and its materials. The carefulness aligns with the grim calculation of choice in Haris and Daphne. Its world of hopeless refugees, sitcom-watching border guards, and ideological murderers is drawn with the sure strokes of familiarity. The narrator maintains a respectful distance from his characters, more empathic (through the eyes) than analytical (through the pretense of knowing others’ thoughts). Ackerman’s American readers are afforded a chance to enter the emotional range of those they have abandoned in Syria – and in the end, Ackerman doesn’t hold back when the horror mounts.

Distraught as the novel reached its end, I was reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s final poem, “And I Always Thought”:

And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.

[Published January 25, 2017. 237 pages, $25.95 hardcover]