Alex Blum is a teenager known for his "shining all-Americanness," his physical and mental fitness, his kindness to neighbors, his sense of humor, and his single goal in life: to become a US Army Ranger. The extraordinary difficulty of joining the ranks of this elite fighting force only feeds his obsession. He watches Black Hawk Down more times than he can count. He spends his downtime in high school reading army manuals. And after he makes it through the harrowing ordeal of Ranger training—which involves pouring Tabasco sauce in his eyes and stabbing his earlobes with a knife to stay up after days of sleep deprivation in freezing conditions—something about him is never the same.
Then, shortly before Alex deploys to Iraq, he robs a bank in Tacoma with two strangers and two other Rangers. After all his work to become a model American soldier, the crime makes so little sense that Alex's cousin, Ben, a childhood math prodigy now working on a biochemical dissertation at the University of Washington, begins an obsession of his own.
Ranger Games is the result of that obsession. After receiving a long letter written by Alex at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center about how the trials of Ranger training warped his mind, Ben seriously questions the aim and trajectory of his own career. He becomes "confounded by how little [his] growing technical expertise seemed to help [him] in understanding the forces that shape our lives." His "lifelong impulse toward abstraction and schematization" strikes him suddenly as trivial, and his future of "scrabbling for grant money to improve the efficiency of algorithms to accomplish things [he] didn't believe in" begins to feel unendurable.
He decides to abandon science, take up the humanities, and become a writer—with his cousin as his subject. In the beginning, he envisions his book as "the thrilling tale of a heroic soldier duped into robbing a bank and the ex-prodigy cousin using science to clear his name." But there are as many problems with that fantasy as there were with Alex's idealized vision of becoming a Ranger in the first place. As Ben unearths more information about the events of that day, the complexities of the case develop into "some kind of narrative Bermuda Triangle, a vortex of interpretive subtleties where any effort at stable meaning was doomed to fail."
Blum weighs down the prose in the first chapter with extraneous detail and interpretive flourish—drawing links between his subject and the ancient Jewish legend of the golem may not have been necessary—but keep going. The more you read, the more riveting the story gets. Moments that initially seem inessential turn out to be telling in unexpected ways. The author's encounter with the mastermind of the crime, one of Alex's superiors in the Rangers and a possible psychopath, is unforgettable. As is the scene where the whole family goes on the Dr. Phil show.
The main achievement and pleasure of the book is its overall construction. Every time we return to the scene of the bank robbery—which happens repeatedly—something new emerges. And 40 pages from the end of the book, everything changes again.