Klay’s understanding of Colombia, the main theater of war in Missionaries, is the chief source of admiration for this reviewer. There are no simple wars, of course, but the Colombian conflict is as intricate as they come ... building a coherent novel out of such chaos-prone material requires order, structure, architecture. Klay is very disciplined, giving his characters regular turns at the microphone to tell their stories before having their paths cross in the novel’s version of hell: a small town in northern Colombia where all the forces of this particular war, including its politics, have come to clash ... a courageous book: It doesn’t shy away, as so much fiction does, from the real world of local politics, often including real names and events, never making any concessions to a reader’s potential impatience with all things foreign. It never simplifies; it doesn’t even try to streamline the situation. We do feel, however, Klay’s restlessness about how much information to give—and his preoccupation with the adequate tools to give it. This authorial anxiety occasionally leads to problematic narrative choices ... But these are minor flaws in a novel notable for its empathy and its curiosity (in the shape of voracious research), and for its cleareyed observation of war in the 21st century ... the novel goes on, undeterred, exploring and revealing whole human worlds that would remain inaccessible without it.
... beautiful, violent and almost perfect ... Missionaries is (among its many virtues) a prime example of what can ideally follow a first great war book. Intricate and ambitious, it’s a rich network of converging stories in which the plot itself becomes the destiny of its characters ... Missionaries is horrifying and refreshing, challenging us to reflect not just on the destruction of our own national institutions but also on the ugly and ongoing consequences of American power abroad.
... many slowly grinding parts. It gets the job done, just about, but it’s a ponderous journey ... It’s got a lot of primary characters. It’s got a story that skips around in time, so there’s a moral Doppler effect to factor in. The reader needs to leave a trail of stones so as not to get lost ... One needs a sharp pencil, a deep intake of breath and a willingness to follow the author closely. On occasion I lacked at least two of the three ... The author has done his homework and sticks pushpins into a large map. Yet this novel works, when it does, when it flies lower to the ground. Its flashes of genius and beauty are entirely in its details, not in foreign policy punditry ... Klay is brilliant on things like what it’s like to walk through a city after a recent bombing. He is very fine on what he calls the soundtrack of war ... He understands both the technology of war and the wet stuff of brutality and torture. He’s dryly funny about the new realities of American journalism and foreign reporting ... Klay’s writing about tending to the wounded is electric in its exactness ... These excellencies are small moments tucked into a baggy novel that struggles to find its focus. It’s not the author’s fault that the culture is saturated with prestige dramas about the drug wars, and that Don Winslow recently wrapped up his masterly Cartel trilogy. But there’s a sense, while reading Missionaries, of moving over instead of transcending familiar ground.
Brutal, subtle, and witheringly savvy, Phil Klay’s first novel, Missionaries, casts a scathing light on American military ventures overseas, while also immersing readers in the tumult of Colombia as it struggled toward peace and democracy in the first decades of the 21st century ... Klay, through archival and on-the-ground research, delivers what feels remarkably like a genuine South American novel built from lived experience of his numerous Colombian characters. His take on his increasingly skeptical American characters is persuasive too ... Klay employs a touch of gallows humor in his accounts of Colombia’s worst self-inflicted wounds ... Still, the book’s violence may be stronger than some readers can take. Klay, a US Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, pulls no punches in exposing the nature of both Colombian factional atrocities and America’s bloody interventions overseas ... Klay has something urgent to say here about the way his country operates in the 21st-century world. It isn’t simple, and it sure isn’t pretty.
... a crowded and vital cast of characters whose conflicts illuminate Colombia’s anarchic, decades-long civil war and the ugly compromises required by the peace treaty between the government and the FARC rebel group. But Missionaries is much more than a regional drama: This is a sweeping, interconnected novel of ideas in the tradition of Joseph Conrad and Norman Mailer that seeks to explicate the way war is waged in the American 21st century—and, in the process, to disabuse readers of their faith in anachronistic concepts like 'winning' and 'losing' ...So much complex information appears in Missionaries that Juan Pablo is forced to act as something of an explainer for the general reader, yet he’s so urbane and eloquent that he rarely becomes didactic. In general, the Colombian characters are rich and complicated ... By taking a long view of the 'rational insanity' of global warfare, Missionaries brilliantly fills one of the largest gaps in contemporary literature.
Klay’s considerable accomplishment in Missionaries, goes well beyond incisive 'insider access into the next permutation of the massive, industrial-scale U.S. machine for generating and executing targets' ... In the tradition of Robert Stone and Graham Greene, he makes geopolitical misadventure, cultural blindness and atavistic behavior pulse inevitably toward terrible denouement ... Reflecting on systematic extra-judicial killings of civilians by Colombian soldiers — something that happened for real a little more than a decade ago — he weighs potential mitigating factors, but ultimately finds no justification.
A reader who has forged through the many dense, overlapping hells in Klay’s colossus of a book—from Afghanistan to Colombia to Yemen—may very well weep over the confused boy’s demise. Not only for the pointlessness of the tragedy but because of the enormity of the interconnected global war machine that caused it. It’s a machine that Klay, a former U.S. Marine who served in the Iraq War from 2007 to 2008, methodically describes with grim precision and often startling language ... Building on exhaustive research and a seemingly endless capacity to develop rich, psychologically complex characters, Klay captures the wretchedness of neglected Colombian villages brutalized by competing murderers ... There is an unblinking forcefulness in Klay’s accounts of psychotic punishments whimsically inflicted on innocent people by renegade militia and the sometimes meaningless results of official tactical missions.
Introducing us to these characters by means of a series of alternating chapters, Klay goes on to show how their lives will come to be entwined. In doing so he demonstrates — often with great energy and insight — not just how the death and barbarism to which they are each exposed affects their respective personalities, but also, and less successfully, how projects of interventionism can exacerbate the difficulties that they have been mobilized to ameliorate ... As we join him in this enterprise, we are exposed to numerous visions of stomach-emptying brutality. Abel, for example, sees a local mayor get strapped to a piano and cut in half with a chain saw. But these moments seldom feel gratuitous, and usually carry a moral purpose that is reflected in the seriousness and the subtlety Klay brings to the events and ethical reckonings endured by his cast — most of whom, with the exception of Lisette, are depicted with precision, attentiveness and an ennobling capacity for imaginative compassion ... This is not to say that the book is without shortcomings. Klay has a habit of pursuing lengthy and tedious digressions. Large portions of his narrative feel polemical and clumsily politicized. And structurally, the book is somehow at once too messy (in its organization) and too neat (in its conclusion). These infelicities divest the novel of aesthetic force. But they do little to diminish the intensity of its apprehension of the horror — and the attraction — of the coarsening magnetism of violence.
...thorough, forceful, and ambitious ... It is slightly more surprising, and entirely admirable, that Missionaries represents a major stylistic shift from Redeployment, in that it is, quite explicitly, a novel of ideas ... the novel's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: It tries to be as all-encompassing as its subject ... 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 ... 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 ... Missionaries may wobble and drag at the beginning, but by the end, its humanity, like its purpose, is clear.
...staggering in scope ... Klay’s vividly descriptive yet lyrical prose keeps their stories interesting, though the novel is at its best when events cascade into occasional bursts of graphic violence ... a starkly realistic view of a war-torn region only hinted at on the nightly news ... a powerful glimpse of the psychological toll of war and a close look at people’s desperate attempts to find their place amid utter chaos.
... dark and complex ... Even as he delivers a tightly controlled, propulsive story of shifting loyalties and outright betrayal, one that at times features graphically described violence, Klay digs deeply into the minds and motivations of these characters. He reveals how, though their paths to engagement in a world of never-ending conflict may have differed, they all find themselves unable to escape its pull. Readers looking for moral clarity in the experience of characters enmeshed in what Lisette thinks of as the 'systems applying violence across the globe' won't find it here, as Klay scrupulously avoids assigning praise or blame to anyone residing in this ethically ambiguous universe ... In its mood and subject matter, Missionaries bears a kinship to novels from the '70s and '80s like Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise and Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer. Phil Klay impressively updates the themes of those classic novels for our time, where 'clean wars with clear boundaries' no longer exist.
National Book Award-winner Klay displays his signature virtuosity in this richly textured, masterful mosaic of modern Colombia ... The struggle for survival is deftly juxtaposed with the struggle for power, and the varying gradations of each are explored through multiple perspectives with nuance, grace, and poignancy ... Each character is rendered in psychologically astute moral complexity and must interrogate his or her own complicity in a corrupt and often violent system ... As the characters’ lives begin to intersect in a rewarding, yet tension-filled denouement, the author’s prodigious skill and deep understanding of the region provide the scaffolding to explore essential questions of human dignity and sacrifice. A triumphant achievement that elevates Klay to the top echelon of contemporary writers.
The challenge before any serious war novelist is to bring order to chaos without succumbing to a tidy narrative. It’s to Klay’s credit that he creates ambiguity not through atmospheric language or irony but through careful psychological portraits that reveal how readily relationships grow complicated and how even good intentions come undone in the face of humanity’s urge to violence. That means plotlines get convoluted in the late stages, but the dispiriting conclusion is crystal clear: It’s not just that war is hell, but that war brings hellishness to everything ... An unflinching and engrossing exploration of violence’s agonizing persistence.
... ambitious ... 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 ... Even though the whole thing doesn’t quite tie together, it’s quite a ride.