The last time I saw Nathan Deuel was seven years ago in the Panhandle. He had quit his job at Rolling Stone to walk from New York to New Orleans; I was investigating hate crimes in Alabama. Friends from college, we ate oysters and talked endlessly about the tension that came with building our young writing careers on forays into places we didn’t belong. As it happened, I hit the escape button and fled journalism for Florida. Nathan hit the gas pedal and headed for a grand tour of rogue cities: Beirut, Riyadh, Baghdad, Istanbul. But to write a book about it, he had to come to Tampa.
This was his schedule. Twice a year, in 10-day stretches from 2011 to 2013, Deuel would leave his wife, NPR Middle East correspondent Kelly McEvers, in Iraq or Syria, shepherd the couple’s infant daughter from Istanbul or Beirut to her doting grandparents in rural Illinois, then hightail it to the University of Tampa, where he was a student in the inaugural class of the university’s low-residency creative writing MFA. This Tuesday, June 24, Deuel returns to UT to read from the fruits of that effort, Friday Was The Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East, a memoir released this spring by Dzanc Books.
It’s an unlikely memoir — we’ve seen plenty of books by war correspondents, but rarely by their spouses. It’s also a bravado portrait of the marital union of a natural warrior and a born worrier. “A blond dynamo, when she was younger she’d ridden with Harley dudes and I met her in Cambodia, where she nonchalantly grilled shark with ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers, while I sat there, jaw dropped. She’d hunted pirates in Indonesia, been detained by the KGB in Russia, embedded with the rebels in Syria,” writes Deuel. “We are different, Kelly and I. In the back of a taxi, for example, after her return from somewhere deadly, she’ll blithely daydream, planning the next trip to Syria or wherever, and I, meanwhile, will worry about whether or not the taxi driver will kidnap us.”
But the occupational hazards of war reporting — several colleagues are kidnapped or killed — will curb his wife’s appetite for risky feats, while the arrival of their daughter will force Deuel to white-knuckle his way through an isolating fatherhood in a culturally alien landscape. But for a time, they are undaunted. “We were here, this was our life, and the risks were worth it,” he writes.
Friday was the Bomb begins in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where McEvers is granted an exceedingly rare journalist visa to live inside the Islamic Kingdom. Inside a theocracy hostile to outsiders, with salaries built on freelance remittances and no health insurance or safety net, they decide to become parents. Kelly delivers a baby girl and a few weeks later finds out NPR has made good on its coveted offer of a bureau chief position. Just one catch: It’s in Baghdad.
They relocate to Turkey, which promises comparative safety for their infant daughter Loretta while offering connecting flights to hostile territory for her mom. “I thought about how different my life was from my wife’s. In Istanbul, I was mainly a father, and each night, I gave our daughter a bath, put her to bed, then cleaned up the house,” writes Deuel. “Kelly, meanwhile, lived behind blast walls, guarded by men with machine guns.”
Then comes the Arab Spring; Syria threatens to implode, the young family moves to Beirut. It’s an edgy, cosmopolitan city, where they can swirl glasses of foreign wine on their balcony. But one night, a gunfight erupts on the street below and doesn’t stop.
Lebanese troops assemble on the couple’s stoop. By instinct, McEvers rushes out the door toward the gunfire as Deuel hovers over his sleeping daughter, shell casings clacking against the street outside. The passage is written without finger-pointing but not without hard questions. For the reader, it’s a moment when the vignettes about living on the edge coalesce into an unforgettable image of how all the little and big decisions about career, dreams and family can one day turn us into people our younger selves would no longer recognize.
“I encourage you to judge me harshly,” Deuel admonishes at the end of the book, acknowledging that these are first-world problems even if mortar fire is involved. He shouldn’t be so hard on himself. Robust war reporting is a requisite of an open society. And conflict reporting is precisely the sort of job that requires the strong support network of a family, even as it takes place in exactly the sort of locales you should never bring your spouse and children.
As it happened, Deuel returned to the U.S. with Loretta and graduated from UT at the end of last year. A few months later, NPR dispatched McEvers to Los Angeles, where she is a correspondent on the national desk. Between the two of them, they know too many fallen reporters to believe they are anything other than lucky. Between the two of them, there is too much life for the rest of us to believe they won’t try again.
See the author in person: At MFA Program Lectores Reading Series with Nathan Deuel, Tue., June 24, 7:30-9:30 p.m. at the University of Tampa's Reeves Theater, 401 W. Kenndy Blvd., Tampa. ut.edu.