A debut novel describing life among the administrators and residents of a Cambodian refugee camp in the late 1970s. Big subjects may require a large canvas, but there's no absolute need for broad strokes. The vast migration of refugees from the Poi Pot and Viet Cong regimes 20 years ago--the ""Boat People""--was one of the greatest human tragedies of this century. Here, Eggers manages to put a human face on the catastrophe by portraying it from the perspective of the motley crew of bureaucrats, functionaries, and international do-gooders who attempted to alleviate the crisis as it arose. The staff of the Bidong Island Refugee Camp was assembled at the facility, off the northeast coast of Malaysia, by the UN's High Commission for Refugees. They come from all over. There's Reuben Gill, a wild man and veteran of the Peace Corps, who was exiled to Bidong for his brawling and given one last chance to redeem himself. There, he's placed under the command of Gurmit Singh, a Sikh bureaucrat who feels even more out of place in Bidong than Reuben does. Another American, Bobble ""Porkpie"" Sortini, is as brash as Reuben but more level-headed, and attempts to keep him out of trouble. Boarding together at Cowboy Lim's Resthouse (""White people could be unpleasantly contradictory, and they made inn-keeping difficult.""), they attempt to deal with the daily traumas of inadequate drainage, government requisition forms, mudstorms (""Johann the radiologist drank a mudball that had gotten into his Johnny Walker bottle, and when Manley offered to punch him in the stomach to induce vomiting, Johann took it personally and they almost got into a fight""), and, of course, the fate of the refugees. Political pressures to close the camp altogether give rise to the climax, in which Reuben and Porkpie lead an insurrection against the hostile authorities. Rambling and loosely organized, but, still, a fascinating portrait of one of the great historical dramas of our time.