The Good Lieutenant

The Good Lieutenant

by Whitney Terrell


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Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

A Washington Post Notable Book of the Year

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Boston Globe and Refinery29

On the outskirts of Baghdad, Lieutenant Emma Fowler’s platoon unwittingly rolls into a buried maze of IEDs—and their Humvee is blasted into a shrapnel-torn wreck.

From this catastrophic moment, The Good Lieutenant unspools backward in time as Fowler and her platoon are guided into disaster by suspicious informants and questionable intelligence, their mission the result of a previous snafu in which a soldier was kidnapped by insurgents. The novel unfolds from points of view that are not customarily included in war coverage—a tenacious female officer, jaded career soldiers, and Iraqis both innocent and not so innocent.

Brilliantly told by an acclaimed writer at the top of his form, Whitney Terrell's The Good Lieutenant is a gripping, insightful, and necessary novel about a war that is proving to be the defining tragedy of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250132161
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 823,418
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

WHITNEY TERRELL is the author of The Huntsman, a New York Times notable book, and The King of Kings County. He is the recipient of a James A. Michener-Copernicus Society Award and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University's Lewis Center for the Arts. He was an embedded reporter in Iraq during 2006 and 2010 and covered the war for the Washington Post Magazine, Slate, and NPR. His nonfiction has additionally appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, The New York Observer, The Kansas City Star, and other publications. He teaches creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and lives nearby with his family.

Read an Excerpt

The Good Lieutenant

By Whitney Terrell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Whitney Terrell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71255-6


The target's house was surprisingly palatial: three stories, winged and modular, its tan concrete balconies adorned with geometric, beveled corners, so that the whole seemed to have been cast from a mold. A stone wall circled it, covered with a matching taupe coat of mortar worked into a pattern of diamonds and grooved lines. Even after Lieutenant Emma Fowler directed her Humvee through the front gate, she still believed that she had not decided unequivocally to let Captain Masterson off the hook for all the illegal crap he'd pulled to find this place. Especially since that crap might well have been the reason her platoon sergeant, Carl Beale, was dead. She had merely come to scope the situation out. Make sure she was not endangering Lieutenant Pulowski or her platoon unnecessarily. Make sure that she could live with allowing Masterson's whole bullshit-o-rama to stay intact. She'd expected this to be difficult but, somehow, during the hour it had taken them to convoy here from Camp Tolerance — the target's house was deep in the Iraqi backcountry, west of Baghdad — the mere fact of driving in her own Humvee with Pulowski had made her feel as if, for the first time in months, they were together, and their old selves had come back. Inside the compound, she counted her soldiers as they chest-bumped the scorching summer air, feeling more than just relief. Yes, the war was fucked up. Yes, left and right you could see examples of people completely botching things in the worst way. Of people who refused to step up. But Pulowski and Crawford, Dykstra and Waldorf, the rest of the platoon — they had not fucked it up. They had not quit. They had not bitched and whined. They had acted in good faith.

She felt as if she had needed only that one gesture of good faith. Seeing Pulowski touch the broken shackle Beale had welded to his Humvee on the ride out, listening to him speak a memory of the sergeant, even after they'd gone all Survivor on each other over the past three weeks — especially after she'd cornered Pulowski in her trailer and, like some camera-hog New Jersey housewife, decided it would be helpful if she said the worst possible things to his face — as Jimenez might've put it, the moment had some serious bueno to it, the kind you didn't feel every day. Better than tribal council, anyway.

* * *

As for the recovery of Beale's body, after all this effort, it appeared completely matter-of-fact. She talked to Masterson about it at a broken picnic table in the rear of the compound. "Faisal says the body's in the field out back," he said. "We'll just search it in sections, like we're looking for a weapons cache." He fanned his fingers on an aerial photo he'd pinned down with his pliers. "We form a straight line, walk it through. Take a couple hours, maybe. Faisal says he used to play here when he was a kid. There's a well or something out there. Claims it's hard to find, but I doubt it."

The field was beyond the compound wall. Inside were nonincriminating beds of rosebushes, a toolshed, a half-swept terrace. The broken poles and stays of ... a badminton net? She'd worried how badly Masterson might've hurt his interpreter to get this intel. Now she worried he hadn't hurt him enough. "You find the owner?"

"Nobody's here," Masterson said. "But this patrol's rotation began at three a.m. So, Lieutenant, I know this particular mission is important to you. I know you are eager to have this happen. I know you've been waiting a long time ..."

"But you've got some tired men."

"To say the least."

"So what do you want from me?"

"I got a dozen guys here," Masterson said. "We add your platoon, we can sweep this field in an hour." He pointed to a road on the map, a black worm at the end of the field's shaded gray. "Then we'll have the Bradleys pick us up and take us home."

"That's on the opposite side of the field," Fowler said.

"That's right."

She understood what he was asking then. With the twelve men he'd brought, Masterson would have to go down one side of the field and then come back up the other in order to cover the entire area. But if Fowler added her guys to the mix, they might sweep it in a single pass. "I can go," she said. "But I've got those cameras we talked about with me. Plus a signal officer." She avoided Pulowski's name, bending her tone to suggest that this being was far beneath Masterson's attention. "You don't want him out there. And if he stays, I need my team in here for security."

"Who is this guy, somebody's brother?" Masterson was fitting his body armor back on. When Fowler didn't respond, he sighed. "All right, have it your way, Lieutenant. We do these cache searches every day. We got to stay out an extra couple hours, so be it. Why don't you have your signal guy put a camera up while we're working, at least?"

* * *

Harris was her real brother's name. She thought about him as she and Pulowski crow-hopped the tubs of camera gear into the target's empty house. Harris in his yellow tie and moleskin coat, his lower lip poked out, concentrating, the last time they'd met before she deployed, at an actual skating rink with actual pastel skaters painted on the boards, a memory no more or less incongruous than the hocus-pocus things that Harris had actually said. Let somebody else worry about what's supposed to be true. That way you can figure out what you really believe. Now, with Pulowski above her, sweating and sharp-edged as usual, wiping his beaked nose, as they heaved the last tub up a ladder to the roof, she would've said that it had never been about what she believed. She'd only wanted to believe with someone else. That was the bueno in the Humvee, and that was what it felt like now, as she and Pulowski scuttled together to the roof's edge, his face smeared with two days' growth of beard but open to her again. Seeing her. Like the last piece to a puzzle she'd been struggling her whole life to complete. From there, they could see the toylike, humped bridge that marked the midpoint of Route Valentine, the distant railroad tracks, the tawny, rough edges of the canals, their silent banks of reeds. The field behind the house appeared to be several acres square, roughly the size of a section back in Kansas. The palm forest loomed on either side, and a mix of darker, orange-tinted wheat stalks and the paper-white clumps of plain grass ran away from them, slightly downhill, in a rolling series of bumps. Beale was there. This did not make the field feel ominous. Not in the way that an empty alley in Muthanna might. She heard the hard, dry hum of grasshoppers, the almost comic — given the usual tension of their patrols — desolation of the place. But she felt the strange, giddy lightness you sometimes got when you pulled off the interstate after a long drive, piled out of the car, and squatted behind a tree to pee: amazement at the stillness going on here, the stubborn persistence of life, always continuing, away from the rush of things. "Man, it was like some kind of ghost town coming in here. You wanna talk depopulation" — Pulowski snapped a picture of the field — "it's like the Iraqi version of Kansas. Maybe we should just evac whoever's left to Salina, give them a chicken farm, and call it good. Holy shit, what's this?"

Pulowski wandered over to a weirdly shaped object in the center of the flat roof. His neck was so skinny up above his collar that his helmet resembled a tapered mushroom cap, and his white hips flashed between his belt and body armor. "You clear that?" she asked one of Masterson's men as Pulowski poked his head inside.

"Yeah, we went through everything."

"It's a fucking spaceship," Pulowski called excitedly.

"What do you mean, a spaceship?"

"I mean like some guy built a spaceship here, you know? Like to play in. It's kinda weird, right?" Pulowski had clambered inside the structure, which looked more like a vegetable steamer with its metal panels folded in.

"Probably a lookout post, is what it seems to me," Fowler said.

She waited through a fussy, rustling silence, which was the sound of Pulowski worrying. "So what are we looking for here?" he said, climbing out.

Fowler hunkered down along the edge of the roof. "The note you gave me," she said. "It was good. We think the guy who wrote it also took Beale. This is his house. Beale's body is supposed to be out back."

"Why didn't you say that before we left?"

She'd expected this question. She'd decided that if she couldn't explain what she'd done to get this information from Masterson's interpreter, Faisal Amar, then she should ditch the whole scheme. "I had to push the envelope a little. Captain Hartz wouldn't have understood. And even if he had, he wouldn't have let me come out here."

"Push the envelope? What the hell does that mean?"

"It means him." Fowler nodded down at Faisal Amar. She'd located him in the yard below, lying on his side, cuffed, like a trash bag that somebody had tossed out for collection. "That guy's in bad shape. Masterson's been having a party with him."

"So this is like, what, violence-bad? Bash-on-an-Iraqi-bad?"

When Fowler nodded, Pulowski covered his face with his hands and started laughing and pacing across the roof. "Oh, shit, that is too perfect. I told you Masterson was a fucking stooge. You didn't listen to me!"

She tilted her head to the side. "It's worse than that. If you want to trace it all the way back, it's probably Masterson's fault that Beale got taken in the first place. He's been fucking up big-time out here. The good news is, it also means that whatever's happening here, whatever happened to Beale" — she nodded at the field — "it's not on you."

Pulowski did not seem in any way willing to classify the interpreter's crumpled body as good news. "So if we find Beale," he said. "You think that's actually going to make this whole thing somehow less of a joke?"

"That's what I'm hoping," she said.


"That's what I believe. We get our guy back. No matter what happened, no matter how jacked up it was, that's the only way to make things right."

Pulowski did not reply to this. She could remember feeling this way the first few months she'd worked recovery: trying to convince herself that the war was like a practical joke, one that couldn't actually fool her so long as she was around someone who already knew the punch line. Like Pulowski.

Or now, in Pulowski's case, like her.

She watched as he hefted a goobered-up antenna from one of his Tupperware tubs and, spooling out Ethernet wire as he went, set it on the edge of the roof. She went over and crouched next to him and grabbed his hand and put the palm of it against her lips. It wasn't something she'd planned. But it felt right. Somebody looking would've thought that he was telling her to stop. But she kissed him in the folds of his palm.

"All right," he said, blushing. He might have seemed just a little bit happier. She noticed that he didn't wipe the kiss away. "Let's get on with it."

* * *

The Yagi antenna on the roof beamed the video back to Pulowski's laptop at about sixteen frames per second (normal television was thirty), and so as the camera panned across the field, there was at each pass a certain level of trailing distortion, a moment when squares of color would flare up, a single pixel bolting out to supernova size, and the swarming calculations underneath the image — the Chebyshev filters, the anti-aliasing equations, the algorithms constantly drilling away at wave sample after wave sample — would be revealed in unnaturally perfect geometric shapes. After a few adjustments, however, the body armor of the soldiers who'd stayed behind pressed Pulowski's shoulders, their fingers reaching out to brush the screen. They marked the shadows separating the wheat field from its bordering reeds, identified the wall that defined the house's garden, its terra-cotta top, and the iron gate whose chain they'd cut, at Faisal Amar's suggestion, in order to enter the back field. They could see, on each pass of the camera, the ragged line of Masterson's platoon — accompanied by Fowler — as they walked down the left side of the field. At the controls, Pulowski felt increasingly magnanimous. Without him, the field would have remained a mystery. A fragment of someone else's dream. Now he presented it to them as a gift. The Syscolite interface had an animated circle of buttons in its upper left corner. These controlled the camera's pan, tilt, and zoom, and Pulowski allowed the men to play with it, breaking the camera out of its preset sweep and aiming at something specific: a patch of reed, a crinkle of paper blowing across the roadway, a pile of bricks. They did this not because they saw something interesting but only to prove that, safely hunkered down inside the compound wall, they had the power to see whatever they wished to see.

After this, the mood of Fowler's platoon eased. Expecting a test, they'd been granted recess. Dykstra, the jowly sergeant from Philly, pulled MREs from the back of his Humvee, snipped their brown foil covers, like he was back behind his ancestral Wawa counter slicing Boar's Head, while others did a SportsCenter recap of the Muthanna intersection bombing two months back. "Dude, you would not believe that shit," a soldier named Jimenez said. He was about Pulowski's height but rubbery, swaying on the outside of his boots, as if he was used to doing something more interesting with his feet. The bright emerald wingtips of a dragon wove up from his shirt collar and circled his neck. "Man, it was like some kind of fucking medical show cleaning that shit up. Giant fucking disaster. You know? I mean, we've seen plenty of wrecks and shit. One guy gets hit with an IED, that's plenty nasty. But you got two dudes? Standing around a dump truck packed with a thousand pounds of dynamite and some gravel? It's cold, man. Fucking cold. And at night, man? At night, man, you hear these fucking rats —"

"Damn, man ... that was — I don't even want you to mention that nastiness while I'm eating," Crawford said. He was the youngest of the group and he made a frightened face, eyes wide and bulging behind his gold-rimmed glasses, mouth covered daintily with a paper napkin, which he'd folded neatly in his skinny, graceful hands.

"Eeek, eek, eek," Jimenez said, his fingers fribbling along the table.

"No!" Crawford dropped his napkin and clapped his hands over his ears.

"Hey, hey, hey," Jimenez said, tapping Pulowski's shoulder, a dirty love band flopping on his wrist. "You ever seen anything like that?"

"I've been to the Muthanna intersection," he said. It was where they'd lost Beale. "You know that."

"That bomb was like a point-blank blast, man, except with gravel."

Then, on Pulowski's laptop screen, a dog appeared in completely clear silhouette, ears up, gazing back at the house and the camera there as if aware of them.

"You see that?" Pulowski said. He was panning the camera, trying to center on the animal again. "Dogs are usually with people, right?"

"Naw, naw, there's dogs all over the place. Just keep it on the sweep." Crawford stood and began to stretch as if preparing to take his leave.

"Wait a second, wait a second — where are you going?"

"The LT's order is we stay here," Crawford said. "Inside the wall."

"What for?" Pulowski said. "What's the point of going to the trouble to put this camera up if we're not going to do anything about what we see?"

"You tell me, man," Crawford said.

Pulowski paused. He looked up from the familiar rectangle of the laptop, its chrome highlights, the pleasing dry waffle of its keys, to Crawford's glossy brown cheeks.

"Why did she have us stay inside the compound, then?" he asked. "It would've been faster if we'd all been out there doing a sweep."

Crawford didn't respond to this.

Pulowski looked up at the surrounding faces of Fowler's platoon. Whatever interest or pleasure they'd shown when he'd originally fired up the camera had dissipated, and their expressions were blank, unfocused — not that far different than they'd been when he'd reported the loss of Sergeant Beale, just seventy-two hours ago. A nice little air pocket of unhappy.

In the center of it was him. He was the reason they'd stayed in.

"Okay, fine. I'm the idiot signal guy. I don't know anything about field operations. I don't know whether it means anything to see a dog out there or not. So I'm just asking for an opinion."

"Could be one thing, could be another," Crawford said.

"Don't you think we should go check it out? Or at least alert them?"

"They ain't got any coms," Crawford said.

"All right," he said. "Let's do it."

"Sorry, sir?" Crawford said.

Who the fuck is this idiot? Pulowski thought, listening to himself. What kind of moron leaves a protected compound when he doesn't have to? It was a deep violation of the signal officer's code. And yet, strangely enough, as soon as he spoke, he felt great. Not brave. Not smart. Just great. His hands had stopped shaking. He could handle fifteen minutes of stupidity if Fowler was genuinely at risk. "I said we're going out. I'm the ranking officer here. Lieutenant Fowler, your lieutenant, is out there in the field. She's got no perspective on this. She can't see the terrain. How difficult is it to just drive down there and take a peek with a Humvee?"

* * *

When Masterson's foot patrol started into the field — a line of thirteen soldiers holding their arms out for spacing — Fowler stood next to the captain and brushed his fingertips. They were nearly black, the dirt ground into deep half-moons beneath his fingernails, and he wore several days' growth of beard. But the spackled, deformed skin between his glasses and his chin seemed less drawn and fearful, a tiny flicker of his frat-boy cheekiness coming back, and though she believed he deserved his fear, she also found its absence a relief. On either side of them were soldiers with metal detectors strapped to their forearms, waving their black disks over the furrows. "Worth a try," Masterson said. "If he's got a gun down there, they'll get a beep. Faisal says he hears they put the body down in a well or something. For what that's worth. Says he's not sure he can find the actual place. But if Beale's been down there since, what, Tuesday?"

Masterson waved a hand in front of his face and she realized that he was trying to warn her that the body might stink. She breathed in deeply through her nose, but all she could smell were the smells of the living: Masterson's perspiration, which was sharper and more acrid than her own. The sweet ammonia of the dip the soldier beside them was chewing. "You trust him?" she said, nodding to Faisal.


Excerpted from The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell. Copyright © 2016 Whitney Terrell. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I: The Field,
Part II: Camp Tolerance,
Part III: Muthanna,
Part IV: Fort Riley,
Part V: Epilogue-The Field,
Also by Whitney Terrell,
A Note About the Author,

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