A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 14, 2008

I Spy

This review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

THE AMATEUR SPY
By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 384 pp., $23.95

Got plot?

It’s the one thing a thriller writer has to have, and the one thing a reviewer must not reveal very much of. Which makes reviewing thrillers difficult because, frankly, most thrillers don’t have much of anything else.

Dan Fesperman has two good plots in his new novel, “The Amateur Spy.” Here are their setups.

Freeman Lockhart, a retired United Nations aid worker, is blackmailed into spying on an old friend. He doesn’t even know which country he’s spying for, or what his handlers, who seem to be American, hope to find out. He just knows that if he doesn’t do what they tell him to do, he risks the exposure of a secret from his past and that of his Bosnian-born wife, Mila.

Aliyah Rahim, an Arab-American woman, learns that her husband, Abbas, a prominent surgeon in Washington, D.C., is planning to do something terrible. The suspicion and surveillance they’ve experienced since 9/11 has caused him to act more and more erratically, especially after the death of their daughter. Aliyah agrees to help Abbas with his plans, hoping that she can somehow prevent them from taking effect.

The paths of Freeman and Aliyah will cross in Amman, Jordan. But their plot lines won’t entangle until the final pages of the novel, in the usual breathless rush of a thriller’s climax. If plot is all you ask of a thriller, “The Amateur Spy” has plenty of it. In that respect, the novel sometimes feels as formulaic as a cliffhanger like TV’s “24.”

But Fesperman’s novel transcends the formulas. He uses suspense to draw you into the world in which his characters live, which unsettlingly happens to be the one we live in. As a foreign news reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Fesperman witnessed his share of the world’s conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Middle East. And he has carried his reporter’s techniques and insight into a series of novels – this is his fifth -- set in those lands and elsewhere. His most recent novel, “The Prisoner of Guantánamo,” did more than most mere journalists have done to shine a light on that dark and troubling place.

Every action of “The Amateur Spy” is rooted in a locale, whether it’s Amman or Jerusalem or Athens or Washington. And his characters are acutely sensitive to the place and the moment. Aliyah, for example, arriving in Amman for the first time, “hadn’t expected all the hills, with their crowded, blocky architecture, everything rendered in watercolor shades of tan and off-white. Or so it seemed in the slanting light. The air had a strange smell, which stirred a vague familiarity. It was the dry, smoky character, she supposed, which took her back to distant times she hadn’t revisited in ages.”

But what especially lifts Fesperman’s thriller above the confines of its genre is the author’s empathy for those caught in the crossfire of the world’s conflicts. That he makes his narrator-protagonist a former UN aid worker, a would-be neutral, is no random choice. The operative irony of the novel is that Freeman (whose name is only a couple of consonants and a little anagramming away from “Fesperman”) wants to be a free man – one without a country -- because he has seen what harm can be done by the zeal of patriots and ideologues. But when he arrives in Amman – “a city of loose talk and stealthy listeners” -- he is instantly reminded how difficult the neutral pose can be. When he orders a Coke, the waiter tells him, with “a remark that from him sounded like an admonition,” that the restaurant serves only Pepsi. And then Freeman remembers an old rumor in the Arab world that the Coca-Cola logo said “No Mohammad, No Mecca” if you turned it backward. “I had forgotten what it was like working in a place where even your most innocent choice might be held against you.”

Worse things than a waiter’s scorn happen to Freeman and Aliyah and others in the novel, but the author’s alertness to such smaller tensions makes “The Amateur Spy” come alive. Fesperman has mastered his genre, but he often breaks out of its confines. You can sense him trying to move away from Tom Clancy and John Grisham and toward writers like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, writers with a nuanced and ambivalent vision of the world and its conflicts. (Aliyah’s plight is reminiscent of that of Winnie Verloc, the anarchist’s wife in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” although Aliyah shrugs off the passivity in which Winnie was trapped.)

Throughout the novel, Fesperman reminds us that the world is a lot more complicated than the TV pundits, politicians and lockstep superpatriots would have us believe. Sometimes he does it with sly wit, as when Freeman hears a group in a hotel bar celebrating their release from the daytime fast of Ramadan: “The revelers began clapping to the beat, drowning out the muezzin, and the band broke into the disco standby ‘I Will Survive.’ Interesting to think of it as some sort of Palestinian anthem.”

And more than once he reminds us of the world’s pain, as when Aliyah reflects that she can’t tell her friend Nancy “that sometimes it gave her comfort to see news footage of American mothers grieving for their lost soldier boys, killed in Iraq. It wasn’t that she took pleasure in the deaths. It was that she thought her country needed this kind of sorrow to keep it humble, because that was how it worked in the rest of the world.”

______

Since I mentioned "The Prisoner of Guantánamo" in that review, here's my review of the novel, which originally ran in the Baltimore Sun:

THE PRISONER OF GUANTÁNAMO
By Dan Fesperman
Vintage, 336 pp., $13.95

The problem with writing a novel whose story is ripped from the headlines is that the headlines keep coming after the novel is published. Obsolescence sets in.

But Dan Fesperman knows something about headlines: As a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun he was responsible for quite a few of them. And he knows something about novels: He's one of the best writers of intelligent thrillers based on contemporary events working today.

So even though headlines about Guantánamo keep coming, Fesperman's novel The Prisoner of Guantánamo hasn't lost any of its edge and urgency.

Set in the summer of 2003, before the hubris in the phrase "mission accomplished" was fully evident, the novel centers on Revere Falk, an FBI interrogator whose fluency in Arabic has gotten him assigned to Guantánamo, a place he knows well, having been stationed there as a young Marine. Falk's "pet project" is a young Yemeni, Adnan el-Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan. Falk has gradually earned Adnan's trust, and one day the detainee decides to give him a "great gift": the name of a key figure in Adnan's al-Qaeda cell. Falk initially hears the name as "Hussein," but Adnan insists that it's "Hussay" – which confuses Falk, because it's not a common Arabic name. The interview is interrupted before Falk can probe further.

Meanwhile, the Cubans have discovered the body of a soldier stationed at Guantánamo washed up on the shore on their side of the fence. Falk, the son of a Maine lobsterman, is an experienced sailor, and he knows that if the soldier had drowned while swimming, the currents around the bay would make it impossible for the body to drift toward the Cuban side. A boating accident seems equally unlikely. So Falk gets involved in the investigation of the death.

The Arabic-speaking interpreters and interrogators are regarded with suspicion on the base, especially by the rank-and-file soldiers, who "tended to hear from their officers 24/7 that each and every one of the detainees was a hardened killer and an experienced terrorist, who in at least some way shared responsibility for 9/11. It was part of the effort to keep them motivated and boost their morale." So when a translator working for a security contractor at Guantánamo is arrested, and there's a sudden influx of investigators from Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, Falk gets wary. He's also surprised that one of the investigators is an old friend, Ted Bokamper, from the State Department.

Falk owes a lot to Bokamper. When Falk was a Marine stationed at Guantánamo, he was curious about the Cuba just over the fence, so he made an unauthorized trip there while on leave and fell into a trap set by Cuban intelligence, who blackmailed him into passing along information about the base. But Falk had a powerful friend to help him out of this bind. Panicked, he got in touch with Bokamper, whose mentor at State, Saul Endler -- "One part Kissinger and two parts alchemist" -- recognized that it could be useful to know what sort of information the Cubans wanted Falk to provide. Bokamper and Endler helped set up Falk as a double agent. Later, Bokamper helped Falk get a security clearance to join the FBI, which doesn't know that Falk has also been spying for the State Department

So now, along with Adnan's cryptic revelation, the soldier's mysterious drowning and the translator's arrest, Falk gets word that his Cuban contact wants to meet with him. Something's going on, but what? In the course of figuring it out, Falk will learn the wisdom of the adage: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. If, that is, you can tell which is which.

There's some standard thriller plotting here, with the usual shadowy alliances and betrayals, a bit of action and some hide-and-seek chases, and the ending has something of an anticlimactic feeling. But what makes the novel work is the attention to detail, especially Fesperman's evocation of Guantánamo – a.k.a. Gitmo -- itself. He gives us the physical layout -- the 45 square miles of swamp, six square miles of which is habitable; the barracks and the detention facilities; the fences and the sea; the soldiers, American and Cuban, keeping a steady eye on one another – but he's even better at creating the emotional atmosphere, the tedium and the tension, the paranoia and the boredom.

It's the right setting for a thriller, but the trick is not to let the sensations of fiction trivialize the reality. It's pretty clear where Fesperman stands on the controversy over Guantánamo, which he views in the light of Abu Ghraib and the subsequent debate over torture. The novel's principal female character, Pam Cobb, Falk's girlfriend and fellow interrogator, has been successful enough with conventional methods that she has avoided the orders to "attempt to get information from detainees by sexually humiliating them. One of Pam's shapelier but less fortunate roommates ended up stripping to her bra and panties in one such attempt. … The subjects only retreated deeper into anger and silence. The interrogator … locked herself into a restroom for an hour, sobbing in shame."

And Fesperman obviously has no use for neoconservative hawks, "out to save the world one conquest at a time," for the novel hinges on the possibility of another "splendid little war" – as the one in Iraq was thought to be in mid-2003. He's also snarky about the jargon of power-players like the guy from Homeland Security who says things like, "Other than Iraq, Gitmo's the single most important front right now in the GWOT." The more cynical Falk interprets this for another new arrival: "Global War on Terrorism. Gitmo acronym 12-b. You'll know 'em all within forty-eight hours. I'd urge you to start using the word 'robust' within the next twenty-four."

Back in the early '90s, there was some naïve speculation that the end of the Cold War had made the thriller irrelevant, that the moral angst of John Le Carré and the flag-waving technolatry of Tom Clancy would go out of style. But the world remained scary and violent, as Fesperman himself demonstrated in his earlier novels set in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Observant, thoughtful, witty and concerned, he has robustly adapted the thriller to the age of the GWOT.