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Last One In A Novel Nicholas Kulish Ecco/Harper Perennial: 264 pp., $13.95 paper

July 15, 2007|Kit R. Roane | Kit R. Roane has covered conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Iraq.

I did not meet anyone like Jimmy Stephens during my journey through Iraq in 2003. But I don't doubt that the sharply carved protagonist of "Last One In," a down-on-his-luck New York gossip columnist with a taste for velvet jackets and sushi from Nobu, lurked somewhere among the hundreds of often wide-eyed and ill-prepared journalists sent to cover the American-led invasion.

This invasion was perhaps the first to invite everybody to the show, and few declined. For me, nothing summed up the peculiar reporting atmosphere more than when I happened upon an MTV crew inside a Marine encampment in the Kuwaiti desert. The music channel, known for pimping rap artists' rides and chronicling the selfish little lives of 16-year-old rich kids, had sent a motley Gen Y crew to probe the innermost thoughts of some Marines playing cards. And the crew members didn't want company, shooting me several annoyed looks before one of them questioned my purpose there, chewed on my answer for a minute, and responded, "That's cool, man. I dig it."

I was glad he dug it too, because in a war that has turned reason on its head, this twentysomething MTV producer might have had the clout to get me booted from the camp because I was not an embedded reporter. These were MTV's Marines, after all, and I was just passing through.

Nicholas Kulish, a fellow journalist I met in Kuwait through a mutual friend and with whom I've shared a few laughs since, has picked up on this absurdity in his debut novel, "Last One In," and has deftly built a readable and compelling satire of both an ill-planned war and the many naive reporters who covered the invasion.

The book in some ways is an Iraq version of Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," another satire that hinges on the angle of a journalist becoming an accidental war correspondent. But in Kulish's novel, it is no accident that Jimmy is sent to war -- it's payback.

Jimmy, you see, has gotten himself into a classic reporting jam. In an attempt to salvage his career at New York's Daily Herald, the insecure tabloid reporter files a half-baked scoop that turns out to be his undoing. The subject of the exclusive, an A-list celebrity, takes issue with Jimmy's description of him being pleasured by a cocktail waitress in the Nobu men's room and threatens to sue the paper. Jimmy knows he's a dead man walking. Then happenstance, somewhat unhappily, intercedes.

On the verge of the Iraq war, the Daily Herald's one seasoned war correspondent -- who's also named James Stephens -- is run over by a Manhattan delivery truck. Suddenly, Jimmy can step into the breach or pack his things into a cardboard box and kiss his expense account goodbye. More troubling for Jimmy is that his failure to take the new assignment will also lead to collateral damage, likely costing his debt-ridden section editor his job. "A feeling that rarely troubled Jimmy settled over him," writes Kulish of the moment Jimmy realizes he holds two lives in his hand. "It was shame."

This act of uncharacteristic empathy secures Jimmy a front-row seat at the war, a campaign we watch spiral out of control as he slowly sheds his gossip columnist skin and stumbles upon the war correspondent within. The trajectory of the war will be well-known to readers, as cocky hubris gives way to the bleak realities on the ground, where the term "quagmire" goes from being a bored reporter's catchy prediction to an infantry soldier's inescapable fact.

Jimmy's own personal arc is also never in doubt. But the author manages to make it a gripping journey, even if its basic roadmap is unsurprising. Kulish, the son of a military man, was working for the Wall Street Journal when he was sent to cover the Iraq war as an embedded reporter with a Marine attack-helicopter squadron. Although Kulish didn't traipse through the war zone in an infantry unit, he has an ear for the infantryman's cadence and occasional crude sense of humor. He has nailed the cynical egotism and self-importance that defines many a war correspondent as well, clearly patterning some of his characters after real-life participants. Case in point, a corpulent French photographer who grills Jimmy over breakfast: "I will call you Louis, like the king," he cracks, while munching on veal bacon, "because your head and body will go home separate."

Such spot-on dialogue helps make the "Last One In" a good romp, an entertaining road trip that keeps the reader yearning for Jimmy's next flub. But Kulish, now an editorial writer for the New York Times, takes the book up a notch, marking this journey with insightful commentary, writing at length, for instance, on the oddity of a war in which death knocked "from three football fields away," and "the scythe was the invisible arc of each projectile, calculated against prevailing winds by whoever was charting the square of metal hail."

In the end, we are as happy to see Jimmy's redemption as we are saddened to see its cause -- the soldiers he has slowly befriended starting to die. For weeks, Jimmy had worried only about himself with an "egotism worth noting in a textbook somewhere," writes Kulish. "Now, he threw up, puked his guts out under the tires of a high-backed Humvee, more scared than he'd ever been. Fear for one is only so big, but fear for dozens or hundreds was too much." Many of Iraq's newly minted war correspondents would agree.

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