- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Tom Paine
Harcourt, $24, 310 pages

Too much of a funny thing is an annoying thing. In "The Pearl of Kuwait," by first-time novelist Tom Paine, the narrator Cody Carmichael is a surfer turned Marine who might have been funny if he were a minor character. But as the narrator of the 310-page book, Carmichael's surfer-talk colloquialisms are aggravating in the way a six-hour conversation with someone who is heavily intoxicated is. In a colorful tale, notable for its energy, his voice becomes monotonous.
There are moments where Carmichael's brazenness and Mr. Paine's willingness to let him spout produce truly hilarious moments. More often, one wonders if Mr. Paine were in some kind of altered state when he wrote the book. For example, after Carmichael meets some Bedouins who dress him in a robe and invite him into a tent for a meal, the visitor sees a female hand reach over a wall toward him. "And it kind of waved to us, and we heard some female voices giggling. And it was so cool, and put me right into the ancient past with caravans and all, and I looked down at my own robe, and thought: Cool! Cool! Cool!"
Carmichael is part of an "elite platoon of U.S. Marine reconnaissance warriors" who in the real Desert Storm were part of America's first deployed forces in the conflict. They went to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to prevent Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from invading the oil-rich country after he had already invaded tiny Kuwait.
Facts, however, are irrelevant to the plot. If anything, they get in the way. The story is mainly about Carmichael's Marine buddy Tommy Trang. Trang is the son of a Vietnamese woman who was raped by U.S. Marines, but far from growing up to hate the United States, Trang makes it his mission to be a warrior the world will never forget. "Trang was clearly gunning for Saddam Hussein, and into helping turn Kuwait into a democracy, before we all sailed off into the sunset," says Mr. Carmichael. This book does not lack for preposterous statements and it won't win any prizes for realism.
Nor does Mr. Paine bother with political correctness. Carmichael offers the following cultural analysis after he and Trang have spent some time around Kuwaitis and Iraqis: "The bottom line was Trang and me were discovering these Arab Folk were way different than us Americans, and it was kind of a bummer, because your basic American attitude is: Hey, you're a towel head, and hot on this dude Allah, but we can still party together, right? And not only wasn't this friendly let's party American approach working, but we were wondering if deep down all these Arabs really hated us generally."
This might be funny to some if Carmichael were a character who got to talk every once in a while for comic relief. But to reiterate, he's the tour guide.
Not only does the above quote say plenty about the banality of the narrator's voice, it also demonstrates another outrageous quality of the book, which is the extreme overuse of italics. Those italics in the above quote are not added. And they are characteristic of the way they are used throughout the book. They give Carmichael the effect of a basketball coach who feels he will not be heard unless he yells, so he yells all the time, thus guaranteeing that no one listens to a word he says.
Carmichael and Trang go AWOL early in the story, driven by Trang's insatiable desire for excitement and adventure. When the two go diving for pearls off the coast of Saudi Arabia, they rescue a Kuwaiti princess who is trying to drown herself out of despair over an arranged marriage. Trang falls deeply in love with this princess Lulu, and the rest of the book is about the adventures of Trang and Carmichael as they try to find their way to Lulu, who ends up hiding away in Kuwait City from her betrothed, the crazy colonel Fawwaz.
Carmichael and Trang meet Col. Fawwaz, who introduces them to the finer points of Arabic male craziness which consists solely of lust, anger and violence and they encounter a host of interesting characters on their way to Lulu. One of these characters is the 12-year-old Ali, a former camel-racer whom Trang converts into an honorary Marine worshiping American culture and the Bill of Rights.
Trang is the novel's most interesting character, because of the manner in which he relishes each challenge that comes his way. As Carmichael explains, "With Trang around you had to buckle your seatbelt, as the dude just always had his golden arms open to the newest possibilities in any situation." In one sense, Trang is the superficial, idiotic kid who never read enough books, if any, but watched too much TV and now fancies his life one long scene from "The Fast and the Furious." However, Trang's courage and resilience are undeniable, and there are scenes in which Mr. Paine's narrative builds to such a point of zaniness that one cannot help but laugh and wonder where he came up with it.
After Trang and Carmichael find Lulu in Kuwait City, they begin an underground resistance movement that intends to overthrow the Iraqis and start a democracy in Kuwait. Lulu represents the hidden flower of repressed feminine brilliance that is oppressed by the male-dominated culture of the Middle East, but she does not really add much to the story.
Mr. Paine's book sputters to a conclusion, never telling the reader what happens to the characters, and never explaining what significance their actions had in the grand scope of the war, which America won by the way. If you are not really at loose ends, don't waste your time with "The Pearl of Kuwait."

Jon Ward is a reporter for The Washington Times Metropolitan section.

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