American intervention in the Middle East is the explosive subject of this ambitious second novel from the former war correspondent turned nonfiction writer and author of the memorable 1998 debut novel, Triage.
Anderson is at his best when writing about the world’s most embattled and dangerous places, and he has here invented a disturbingly vivid one: the fictional Arab kingdom of Kutar, a former British colony, in the early 1980s, when an “Alliance” of foreign nations conspires to turn it toward western-inflected democracy. We experience the country’s tribulations through the eyes of Anderson’s protagonist David Richards, a 30-something American diplomat based in the capital city of Laradan, where he oversees various make-work projects and carries on an active adulterous love life. Tensions mount when rebel tribes outside Laradan wage a series of small wars, arousing the interest of U.S. military Colonel Allen Munn, a stiffnecked control freak who advises, and receives consent for, engagement with the rebels by Kutar’s army, “aided” by Alliance forces. The rebels prevail (seizing and stockpiling arms)—and, since Kutar is not oil-rich and is therefore of limited strategic importance, the Allies depart, abandoning Laradan to a (blisteringly depicted) prolonged siege. Richards, who despite his personal weaknesses, truly does act as his adopted country’s “protector,” has a moral choice to make—and it isn’t the one that might have been expected of him. This novel is a mixed success: an astringent portrayal of “a place where talk of peace was reckless and going to war was prudent,” weakened by thinly developed generic characters (e.g., feckless ambassadorial personnel, an idealistic British diplomat, Richards’s impossibly exotic and jaded Kutaran lover Amira), yet vividly energized by its mordant dramatizations of intermingled American idealism and ruthlessness.
Not quite equal, therefore, to Robert Stone or Ward Just, but very much worth reading.