Home from the wars

<strong>We Are Now Beginning Our Descent</strong>

James Meek <em>Canongate, 304pp, £16.99 </em>

"I want stories where I can be home for supper. I want stories I can wear a cardigan to," groans a hack from his ringside seat at the First Bush War. It's not very glamorous in Afghanistan in late autumn 2001. Watching, waiting and, occasionally, fornicating, a clutch of bored war correspondents share a house in a strategic Northern Alliance town. They squabble over AA batteries, loo paper and the rights to the furniture in the tedious weeks before the advance south and the fall of Kabul. James Meek, who was there, writes in this acid-washed novel: "The reporters were bored and tetchy because the war was everywhere and nowhere, like God; they were telling their editors that they believed in it but they seldom saw it, apart from the sound of the planes and the columns of smoke on the horizon."

Among the jaded hacks is Adam Kellas, a lonely, promiscuous, emotionally incompetent divorcee suffering from adrenalin addiction. Kellas is in the advanced stages of the existential crumbling that affects quite a few veteran foreign correspondents: it generally ends in breakdown, death or a retreat to the features pages. Very rarely in the writing of a good novel.

Kellas had resolved to report no more wars, but then, on 11 September 2001, Osama Bin Laden had gone public with a plot he had stolen straight from the outline of Kellas's almost completed airport novel, the one that was going to release him from the thrilling drudgery of war reporting. Bereft of a life-plan, he signed up for Afghan istan with his dumbing-down broadsheet: he was, in his words, "not brave enough to be thought a coward, and had flown to the war". Kellas is an enjoyable cliché in a profession where clichés generally fit the bill: no one knows this better than Meek, who reported the Afghan and Iraq wars for the Guardian. Like Kellas, he was raised in the east of Scotland. Unlike him, he writes better novels than Kellas's Rogue Eagle Rising.

Into Kellas's cynical world strides a different hack, Astrid, who transgresses the war reporters' codes. She has a gun. She writes beautifully and entices him to shed blood. Because she leaves him, he loves her: he's that kind of guy. His quest to find Astrid makes for a novel of set pieces, many of them in exotic locations. There is an act of love in a shell-shattered control tower at Bag ram airbase and a disastrous dinner party with north London mediacrats. We watch philosophical flirtation in the first-class cabin of an aircraft flying between Heathrow and JFK and get a series of revelations amid winter storms in rural Virginia - with a finale in the contaminated desertscape north of Basra. If this sounds like a parody of the Wilbur Smith/Robert Ludlum formula, that is intentional and key to the novel's clever grabbiness. The grand scenes in headline destinations end up in much more interesting territory than those visited by any airport blockbuster.

In part these are to stage the philosophical debates you'd hope that any reporter of human-on-human tragedies would have. Kellas has lost faith not just in his despatches - that would be only healthy, in his job - but in much of humanity. After the brief interlude with Astrid culminates in a vile death, he must address some purposely nagging questions. Such as: "If you stand by while somebody else kills some strangers in the distance are you in on the killing yourself? What's the charge, aiding and abetting?"

But the novel pushes at grander issues than the morality of war reporting. Kellas's quest for Astrid takes him, crass and self-confident, through wartime America, and leads him to consider the nature of late-capitalist conflict. An unnecessary war, like that in Iraq, is "the last luxury of a society that could not accept it had more money than it knew how to console itself with . . . an attempt to buy seriousness with other people's blood".

This is a truthful and powerful novel. Does it come anywhere near the Greatest War Reporter Novel podium, whose only occupant, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, has stood there without serious challenge for 70 years? I think it does. It might have got a little nearer to toppling that great cynic's romp if it weren't for the fact that this is at heart a novel about much more: it's about love, friendship and the struggle to be true in a world that has lost its grip on certainties.

Alex Renton used to write about wars. Now he writes about foodChasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, Samantha Power, Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 640pp, £25Fiction

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us