- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

By Andrew Mueller
Soft Skull Press, $16.95, 472 pages paper

Midway through “I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong,” Andrew Mueller stops mucking around in war zones and hellholes long enough to visit … Luxembourg, a “self-effacing, quietly industrious, inoffensive and almost painfully reasonable” country, and concludes, “The peaceful, prosperous, free and civilized world is a nice place to live. But I wouldn’t want to visit it.”

This, then, is one of those few conceivable instances in which the free and civilized world’s loss is our collective gain: “I Wouldn’t Start From Here” is a tour de force of hilarious, harrowing and, ultimately, enlightening reportage that will remind readers of the work of P.J. O’Rourke, Jon Ronson and David Foster Wallace.

Mr. Mueller treks to the Balkans to unravel why there are “viruses hatching in African rivers which had better public images than Albania” — happily, the place turns out to be much more pleasant than all that. He visits Afghanistan under the Taliban (“part George Orwell’s Thought Police and part Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition: terrifying, yet difficult to take seriously”), where the government had “outlawed pretty much everything, on pain of flogging, except facial hair and praying, which they’d made compulsory.” In Beirut, he tours Hezbollah HQ mired in a conspiratorial past and contrasts it with the city’s malls, that “already contained all the familiar signifiers of international capitalism, except spoilt students protesting against international capitalism.”

And Mr. Mueller admits finding an ego-centric upside to spending a few tragicomic days as an involuntary guest of Cameroon’s prison system: “There exists among journalists an undeclared regime of invisible Boy Scout badges,” Mr. Mueller explains, “and the Night-in-the-Cells shoulder patch had been absent from my sleeve, let alone the Night-in-the-Cells patch with the coveted Africa clasp.”

“I Wouldn’t Start From Here” includes several celebrity cameos, from Bono of U2 to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein to Al Gore, whose pomposity he captures in full plume. More intriguing, however, is the window he provides into typically unheralded lives: A retired Miami police officer manning an isolated “administrative boundary line” in middle-of-nowhere Kosovo. The Gazan teenager attempting to impress a beautiful Islamic militant with brash talk of martyrdom. (“While Nadia toyed with her key ring, which depicted a peace symbol trussed in barbed wire, Mohammed bore the expression of a man hoping that Allah might see fit to reward his sacrifice by reincarnating him as a key ring.”) The police state minders inadvertently aping Inspector Clousseau. The Baghdad shopkeeper feigning hysterical laughter throughout his interview to avoid piquing the interest of the secret police outside as he risks his life to tell the truth about life in Saddam-era Iraq.

You couldn’t, as they say, make this stuff up. “We all (this also applies to nations, peoples and faiths) feel our own agonies most acutely, however trivial in the broad sweep of events,” Mr. Mueller somewhat grimly determines, yet he also separately muses after a trip to a diverse, halcyon village in Tunisia that “if left to their own devices, untormented by big ideas, unburdened with dramatic solutions, and permitted and encouraged to deploy commonsense and common courtesy, people can and will get along.”

Fairly optimistic stuff from a wisecracking foreign correspondent that frequently bears witness to tyranny and suffering. Then again, this is the same correspondent who writes exquisitely of superstitiously spinning the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels” before any treacherous journey. To Mr. Mueller, the song espouses “the cheerfully fatalistic attitude which one should always pack — along with sleeping bags and stomach medicines — as one prepares to sally to parts unknown, resigned to and yet excited by where the road may lead: ‘We’re not afraid to ride,’ croons Gram Parsons. ‘We’re not afraid to die.’”

Mr. Mueller’s own fearlessness bestows upon us a wonderfully entertaining, thought-provoking, empathetic book that makes our turbulent world feel a bit more comprehensible.

Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.

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