cover image Missionaries


Phil Klay. Penguin Press, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-1-9848-8065-9

Klay’s ambitious debut novel (after the National Book Award–winning collection Redeployment) plunges the reader into war-torn Colombia, where allegiances are uncertain and tremendous violence is an everyday reality. The story follows the four characters: there is Abelito, a Colombian forcibly conscripted into a militia commanded by the infamous terrorist Jefferson, and who hopes to save the woman he loves from his murderous commandants. American journalist Lisette Marigny, meanwhile, is embedded in Afghanistan until she is dispatched to Bógota to report on gang activity, only to be kidnapped by guerrillas. En route from the Middle East is Mason, an Iraq War veteran and Special Forces medic reassigned to fight paramilitary narcos in Colombia, which he naively imagines will be a “good war.” He befriends Juan Pablo, a weary commando who frets at being little more than a common mercenary and reflects on his early ambition to join the priesthood. Through these four protagonists, Klay unravels the complexity of interventionist American operations abroad, from Kabul to Medellín. While the novel suffers from a surfeit of tedious subplots and can feel overwhelmed by Klay’s exhaustive research, the prose is consistently staggering, whether in the characters’ moments of self-reflection or unflinching descriptions of brutality (“A chainsaw appeared, and suddenly everyone who had watched, confused and amazed... knew what was about to happen”). Even though the whole thing doesn’t quite tie together, it’s quite a ride. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME. (Oct.)