Sunday, April 12, 2009

By Jeffrey Fleishman
Arcade, $24.95, 252 pages

If there is a special circle of literary hell reserved for the category of acclaimed, pretentious, unbearably bad novels, this ridiculous book belongs there.

“Promised Virgins” shamelessly apes Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” and everything ridiculous that Ernest Hemingway ever wrote. But Mr. Fleishman is not “channeling” Greene (pretentious), Hemingway (absurd) or Conrad (truly great). Instead, he is a typical self-serious American intellectual imagining that he is giving himself class and originality by latching on to the backs of all the people who got there first.

One of the blurbs for this book, by Sebastian Rotella, praises Mr. Fleishman for his “honesty, precision and passion.” Yet the first page alone has helicopters that “skitter against the night sky.” A lover’s “damp, haunted hair … brushes me like a cool sheet.” Rain, as usual, falls “drumming against our windows.” The cliches and (supposedly) fresh metaphors crowd against each other on every page, squeezing out naturalness and originality, blotting out any fleeting possibility of insight or understanding. The supposedly haunting, tragic love affair that defines the novel goes exactly where you knew it was always going to go from the very first sentence of the book. There is no complexity in any of the characters. There are no surprises. The inner life of all of them was painstakingly inscribed on a series of index cards or Windows Word Perfect files before the first sentence was ever written.

Every cliche of the veteran foreign correspondent’s life is crammed in. One should, I suppose, count one’s blessings. This book is only 252 pages long, though it feels three times the length. All the claptrap about the supposedly hardened foreign correspondent who has seen too much needless suffering, but finds redemption with a beautiful young exotic woman could have come straight out of any of the bad American novelists of the 1950s and ‘60s who churned out now-forgotten thousand-page behemoths. But at least they could write in coherent sentences and, in the cases of Leon Uris, Irving Wallace and John Hersey, tell crackerjack stories.

Here is Mr. Fleishman on the terror attacks of Sept. 11: “The girder-groan and the crumple and the storm of glass and all those bits of data, the insurance annuities and the stock analyses, the actuaries and the portfolios, the arcane keynotes of a people obliterated in billows of blood-stained confetti.” We have to put up with this nonsense on only page 2, and it has absolutely no bearing on the tale Mr. Fleishman wants to tell.

War correspondents, in their cups, like to imagine they are tortured souls rather than privileged little boys having the time of their lives. Mr. Fleishman drinks that conceit neat and undiluted by any humor or irony.

More than 70 years ago, the immortal Evelyn Waugh captured the tribe of British and American war correspondents in all their shameless, drunken, expense-account-faking, hedonist glory in his comic masterpiece “Scoop.” It took two or three generations, but Mr. Fleishman has now delivered us a perfect book for these joyless, pretentious, whining times — the “Anti-Scoop.” A book without any of the humor, self-deprecation, fun, accuracy, elegance or piercing alert observation that the master, distilled in such apparently effortless perfection.

Nor did I detect a single new or worthwhile political or cultural insight in the entire book. George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” has about as many poetic metaphors in its entire length as Mr. Fleishman usually crams in on a single page. “Burmese Days” is entirely artless — in the worst as well as the best sense. But you don’t care or, at least, you shouldn’t, because what Orwell has to say about the corrosive effects of British colonialism and English snobbery as they affected a remote part of the world was so original, authentic and riveting.

Mr. Fleishman’s novel is indeed of great value, but only because it so completely and unselfconsciously reflects and refracts the self-importance, the emotional and intellectual shallowness and above all, the literary pretension of the modern American foreign correspondent at his indescribable worst. Somewhere in the Elysian fields, Evelyn Waugh and his great journalist creations, Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, Wenlock Jakes and Corker, are laughing.

Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International. He has reported from 65 countries, covered nine conflicts and received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting.

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