Book excerpt: “Missionaries” by Phil Klay

Phil Klay, a Marine Corps veteran and journalist whose 2014 short story collection “Redeployment” won the National Book Award, is back with “Missionaries” (Penguin Press), an epic novel about the moral complexities of geopolitics and modern warfare, set in contemporary Colombia.

Read an excerpt below:

Penguin Press

My town sat on top of a small hill by the side of a river whose banks held only sand. At noon you had to walk quickly so as not to burn your feet but when it rained the river would overflow and turn our central street to mud. All us children would go out, slipping and pushing each other, playing in the mud before the sun baked it hard and the wind carried it away as dust.

To talk about this part of my life is to talk about another person, like a person in a story, a boy with a father and mother and three sisters, one pretty, one smart, and one mean. A grandfather who drank too much and beat everyone at dominos. A teacher who thought that boy had talent. A priest who thought he was wicked. Friends and classmates and enemies and girls he watched with increasing wonder, like Jimena, who had thick curly hair and fair skin and who got pregnant with the baby of one of the local guerrilleros. Most people think that a person is whatever you see before you, walking around in bone and meat and blood, but that is an idiocy. Bone and meat and blood just exists, but to exist is not to live, and bone and meat and blood alone is not a person. A person is what happens when there is a family, and a town, a place where you are known. Where every person who knows you holds a small, invisible mirror, and in each mirror, held by family and friends and enemies, is a different reflection. In one mirror, the sweet fat boy I was to my mother. In another, the little imp I was to my father. In another, the irritating brat I was to Gustavo. A person is what happens when you gather all these reflections around a body. So what happens when one by one the people holding those mirrors are taken from you? It’s simple. The person dies. And the bone and meat and blood goes on, walking the earth as if the person still existed, when God and the angels know he doesn’t.

From “Missionaries” by Phil Klay, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Phil Klay.

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