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Fiction Literary

American War

A Novel

by (author) Omar El Akkad

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Jan 2018
Literary, Dystopian, War & Military
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2018
    List Price

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A unique and eerily convincing masterwork, American War takes a scalpel to American politics, precisely dissecting it to see what would happen if their own policies were turned against them. The answer: inevitable, endless bloodshed.

In a disturbingly believable near future, the need for sustainable energy has torn the United States apart. The South wants to maintain the use of fossil fuels, even though the government in The North has outlawed them. Now, unmanned drones patrol the skies, and future martyrs walk the markets. For the first time in three hundred years, America is caught up in a civil war. Out of this turmoil comes Sarat Chestnut, a southern girl born into the ongoing conflict. At a displaced persons camp, a mysterious older man takes her under his wing, and while her family tries to survive, Sarat is made into a deadly instrument of war, with consequences for the entire nation.

About the author

Contributor Notes

OMAR EL AKKAD is an author and a journalist. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he was raised in Doha, Qatar, until he moved to Canada with his family. He has reported from Afghanistan, Guantánomo Bay, and many other locations around the world. His work earned Canada's National Newspaper Award for Investigative Journalism and the Goff Penny Award for young journalists. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Le Monde, Guernica, GQ, and many other newspapers and magazines. His debut novel, American War, is an international bestseller and has been translated into thirteen languages. It won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the Oregon Book Award for fiction, and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, and has been nominated for more than ten other awards. It was listed as one of the best books of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, GQ, NPR, and Esquire, and was selected by the BBC as one of the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.

Excerpt: American War: A Novel (by (author) Omar El Akkad)

An ancient heirloom wristwatch lay upon a rock in the middle of the creek like so many of the functionally deceased things the refugees carried with them—the washed-out photos and the obsolete or corrupted stores of memory and the keys to homes long since bombed out or otherwise demolished—it bore a vital link to some distant, happier past.
“Used to be my grandfather’s,” Ethan said. “My mom’s gonna kill me if I don’t get it back.”
“So go in there and get it,” Sarat said.
“Don’t be gross. I’m not gonna step in shit.”
Another boy whispered something in Ethan’s ear. He liste3ned and nodded.
“Why don’ you get it, Sarat?” he said. “I’ll give you fifty bucks if you do.”
Sarat shrugged. “All right.”
Once more she pushed the boys aside and walked away from the creek, toward the nearest tents. A few of the children followed, among them Ethan, who held Sarat by the wrist and warned her against telling any grown-ups.
“I’m not telling anybody,” Sarat said, shaking the boy’s hand loose. “Stop being so scared of everything.”
She walked between two tents, where an unused clothesline hung. She unhooked the metal holders on either tent and rolled the line around her fist. Then she returned to the creek. The children followed.
At the banks she uncoiled the line and tossed it into the ditch. On her first try she fired too far left and then overcompensated. But on the third throw the hook landed just past the rock on which the watch was stranded. Slowly she pulled on the line.
“Careful, careful!” Ethan cried from behind her. “You’re gonna knock it in.”
“Be quiet,” Sarat said.
She tugged gently on the line until the metal hook rested on the rock just beside the watch. With surgeon’s hands she edged the hook closer until it dislodged the watch from its place. The watch began to slide down the polished side of the rock toward the stream, but caught on the edge of the hook. A couple of the children yelped in triumph.
“You got it!” Ethan yelled. “Pull it in, pull it in.”
“Hold on,” Sarat said. “Give me that bat of yours.”
One of the boys picked up a baseball bat nearby and handed it to Sarat. With the line still in her left hand, she lifted the bat with her right. She held it as far in front of her as she could without losing her balance. Slowly she began lifting it up underneath the line to create a pivot point. Then she reeled in the catch. The hook lifted, the watch rising with it. As it came off the rock the watch swung and skimmed across the surface of the creek. Coiling the line around her wrist, Sarat pulled the watch in and set it on the ground.
She turned to Ethan. “Pay up,” she said.
The boys stared at the watch on the ground as though it had landed from outer space. Finally Ethan pulled a wad of Redbacks from his pocket and paid Sarat what he owed her.
The children began to disperse. Some of the boys revived their baseball game, a little further away from the creek this time. One of the younger girls, whom Sarat did not know, offered to return the clothesline for her.
As she made to leave, Sarat was approached by another of the boys, a fourteen-year-old from Georgia named Michael. She knew him only tangentially. He was the older brother of a boy named Thomas, who as a toddler had suffered a shrapnel injury that had frozen his mind at the age of two. The older brother had been sleeping in the same bed the night the Birds came, but through blind chance had escaped uninjured.
“Hey, Sarat—wait, girl, where are you going so fast?” Michael said. He pointed at the creek. “I’ll give you another fifty if you go in.”
The departing children halted. Sarat eyed them, and then Michael. He was wiry and lanky, swimming inside his too-big Sinopec Solar T-shirt, a hand-me-down from the Augusta docks.
Sarat said nothing.
“C’mon now,” Michael said. “You ain’t scared, are you?”
He had pasted on his face a smirk with which Sarat was well acquainted. She’d seen the same look on so many of the other boys’ faces over the years. A self-satisfied grin. It was the smirk of knowing he’d left her with an impossible choice—step in the river of filth or be labeled a coward.
Even then, at such a young age, she understood that smile for what it was: a mask atop fear, a balm, for the crippling insecurity of childhoods deeply damaged. They were fragile boys who wore it, and their fragility demanded manage. Sarat knew the boys better than they knew themselves. And she knew there was no winning this dare. That was the point—for there to be no winning, only different magnitudes of losing.
“How do I know you’re not lying,” she said.

Editorial Reviews

"American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad's story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times." —Emily St. John Mandel, award-winning author of Station Eleven

"El Akkad has fashioned a surprisingly powerful novel—one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy . . . and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth." —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"American War is a worthy first novel, thought-provoking, earnest and mostly well-wrought. It is at its best depicting the lives of ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances and how those ordinary people are . . . forever changed, and how some can become extraordinary or at least affect history. . . . El Akkad's formidable talent is to offer up a stinging rebuke of the distance with which the United States sometimes views current disasters, which are always happening somewhere else. Not this time." —Los Angeles Times
"American War is Omar El Akkad's first novel and it is masterful. Both the story and the writing are lucid, succinct, powerful and persuasive." —Globe and Mail
"This is not a comforting political message for Americans, whose homeland has largely remained free of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by other nations in the modern age. But comfort is exactly what El Akkad is writing against. . . . What if it happened here? American War asks us to imagine the uncomfortable." —Toronto Star

"El Akkad demonstrates a profound understanding of the corrosive culture of civil war, the offenses that give rise to new hypocrisies and mythologies, translating terrorists into martyrs and acts of despair into feats of heroism." —Washington Post
"El Akkad, an Egyptian-born journalist who's covered the war on terror, has a knack for giving [the language of oppression] as much of a heartbeat as possible. His imagined speeches, transcripts, history-book passages, censored letters and news stories feel accurate while highlighting institutional deceptions and omissions." —Mark Athitakis, Star Tribune
"It's a compelling narrative, one matched—surpassed, actually—by El Akkad's flawlessly executed backstory. . . . American War—its title, as slowly becomes apparent, is beautifully apt—covers past and present very well indeed." —Maclean's
"El Akkad . . . has an innate (and depressingly timely) feel for the textural details of dystopia; if only his grim near-future fantasy didn't feel so much like a crystal ball." —Entertainment Weekly

"Whether read as a cautionary tale of partisanship run amok, an allegory of past conflicts or a study of the psychology of war, American War is a deeply unsettling novel. The only comfort the story offers is that it's a work of fiction. For the time being, anyway." —Justin Cronin, New York Times

“American War, a work of a singular, grand, brilliant imagination, is a warning shot across the bow of the United States. Omar El Akkad has created a novel that isn’t afraid to be a pleasurable yarn as it delves into the hidden currents of American culture and extrapolates from them to envision a deeply tragic potential future.” —David Means, author of Hystopia
“Omar El Akkad’s urgent debut transmutes our society’s current dysfunction into a terrifying yet eerily recognizable future, where contemporary global and local conflicts have wreaked havoc on American soil. The threads between today and that future are his masterfully shaped characters. Their resilience, savagery, and humanity serve both as a portrait of who we are but also what we might very well become.” —Elliot Ackerman, author of Dark at the Crossing
“Omar El Akkad has created an American future that is both terrifying and plausible. In a world seared and flooded by global warming, the U.S. has fractured again into North and South. . . . Through the eyes of a young girl El Akkad lets us see the soul-crushing toll of war. It was only in the stunned minutes after I’d finished the novel that I realized he had also taught us how to make a consummate terrorist.”
—Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars and Celine
"American War avoids being a polemic. Its characters are too vivid and contradictory, its twists of plot too well constructed, for the novel to settle for familiar and obvious messages." —San Francisco Chronicle

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