Richard House’s colossal novel, The Kills, is composed of four separate novels, augmented by additional material (videos and extended passages) on line. It’s utterly brilliant, sui generis, compelling (except for one small lapse), and totally disturbing for what it says about America’s Iraq “experience.” No more devastating account of the war has been written, yet the focus is not on the military or soldiers but the contractors, non-combatants, employed by the thousands to support the military: build roads, bridges, entire cities, and bring in all the goods necessary to feed, clothe, and provide shelter for the fighters. Think of Dick Cheney’s beloved Halliburton Corporation and the way he hyped the need to invade Iraq in order to line his pockets and those of his friends. In short, the Iraq war was a business venture from day one, nothing else.
In Book I, “Sutler,” non-combatants are in the early stages of constructing “one of the largest engineering projects ever attempted. A new city in the desert…the gateway to the world’s largest oil reserve. It was supposed to make up for the failures of Baghdad [but] the plan was so large, so extraordinary, that no one had their eyes on him,” (Sutler, the man brought in to build the project). Sutler has 53 million dollars at his disposal, yet barely has the project begun—it’s near the end of the war—before he’s told to close it down. What’s been implemented is a series of burn pits, huge holes in the sand, large enough that there isn’t anything that can’t be destroyed: entire vehicles, “chemical, human, and animal waste,” including body parts, and—later—government documents. In essence, covering up the evidence.
Then the directive comes that the entire site must be destroyed; the project is aborted, and Sutler (who has been in Iraq on a fake passport and given a pseudonym) is told to get out of the location immediately and he’ll be rewarded with enough money in foreign bank accounts that he’ll be adequately compensated. The plan backfires; there’s an explosion, people are killed or injured, Sutler flees, and his puppeteers believe he has access to most of the 53 million. Much later, in Part II, another character puts all these events into context: “This is how government works. They make decisions, they appoint money to those decisions, and they expect others to bid and take on those projects. There’s a whole complicated structure for this which has government agencies and private businesses at each other neck and neck. It’s in everyone’s interest to have the money used up before it gets sucked back. That’s how it works around here. “ Except that is this case the money was barely used.
Most of the rest of Book I segues into an elaborate plan to track Sutler down, as he flees overland, into Turkey eventually and beyond. Sutler is robbed on one occasion, loses the codes for the bank account transfer of the money rightfully his, and that incident and its aftermath introduce several new characters in pursuit of him, with bodies strewn along the way, implying that his employer for the whole project, HOSCO International, operates outside of the law not only within Iraq but beyond. The intrigue, the pursuit, takes on the aura of the best espionage novel, with numerous tense scenes and cliffhangers, as chapters abruptly end and the narration shifts to another character.
Part II, “The Massive”—what the new city in the desert was referred to while it was still in progress)–jumps back in time so that most of what is narrated takes place before Part I. Rem Gunnersen is lured into his job overseas by HOSCO because he’s encountered huge debt and the need to pay off the expenses of his wife’s illnesses, plus the fast talk of the recruiter, Geezler. Other recruits—a seamy lot of broken men—are brought in at the same time as Gunnersen, with the promise of huge salaries, tax-free. Mostly bigots, they have no respect for the Iraqis and constantly denigrate them with racist slurs, particularly ironic since these guys are mostly sickos, misfits, close to mercenaries. These are the men who man the huge burn pits, incinerating dangerous materials, hazardous to their own health. Gunnerson’s wife—who was against his taking the job in the first place—searches the internet and discovers just how unhealthy the work is, though HOSCO denies all that and refuses to address her concerns when she tries to contact them. There are also brief descriptions of whole pallets of American money being transported into Southern Iraq to pay for the projects and, as in Part I, the unchecked abuse by HOSCO of its former employees results in a massive cover-up of what the company has been doing in Iraq in order to complete the projects the United States government has contracted.
Initially, it appears as if Part III (“The Kill”) has little to do with the earlier sections. Two men (“Mr. Wolf and Mr. Rabbit”) arrive in Naples, rent an underground room for storage, and a few weeks later the men have disappeared, left the room covered with blood and, in a separate shopping bag, bloody clothing and body parts. Somewhat later, it’s discovered that there’s a novel, The Kill, that describes a similar murder or murders, suggesting that the two men were copycat artists. Further confusion results when a young American writer arrives in order to write a book about the Naples murder(s). He’s robbed, not only of his money but his computer, the notes he’s been taking and everything relating to his “research” for his book project. The question behind all this is who did Mr. Wolf and Mr. Rabbit murder? Was it Sulter? This is the slowest section of the House’s novel but a catalyst for events in the final part. Further, “The Kill” is gruesome and sadistic, the parts related to Naples’ dark underbelly truly spooky.
The final book, “The Hit,” introduces an entire new cast of characters (as did Part III). This time the setting is Cyprus, there’s at least one diplomat and several members of his family, plus a German/Norwegian (or so he says) named Tomas Berens, who initially seems to be an innocent tourist spending some time on the island. Soon, however, we discover that he is tracking Sutler’s whereabouts, as is the diplomat, and—to add further intrigue—three different people who may or may not be the mysterious man who absconded with all those millions of dollars. Once again, carnage is spilled along the way as ruthless governments and/or corporations attempt to cover up the tracks of the men they have hired to do their dirty work.
And the final irony here? People in the diplomat’s extended family are reading The Kill (not the original novel but the American student’s account of the murder or murders in Naples sometime earlier).
Richard House’s The Kills is an amazing series of interlinked narratives with an unsettling but not surprising theme about the devastation our government has inflicted on non-Western societies, most recently in the Middle East, but earlier in Africa and Latin America. Because of its extraordinary length, few people will probably ever read House’s novel—an outrage but not nearly as outrageous as what the novel shows us.
Richard House: The Kills
Picador, 1003 pp., $35
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.