- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2010

By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, $25.95, 292 pages

Imagine waking up one morning in an alternative universe. That, basically, is the situation in which Sam Keller, the protagonist of Dan Fesperman’s “Layover in Dubai,” finds himself. Keller is a mild-mannered auditor, “the son of an accountant, with bean counting in his genes.” Sam, known to one of his superiors as “the human calculator,” is a four-year veteran at Pfluger Klaxon, a giant pharmaceutical company. Those four years of corporate treadmilldom have ground away whatever edge-of-the-envelope tendencies he might have once had. “Whenever opportunity knocked nowadays, Sam checked first through the peephole.”

Mr. Fesperman’s alternative universe is Dubai, the emirate on the Persian Gulf that has its own ski slope under glass, the sort of fantasyland where you can buy gold by the gram, counterfeit Rolexes by the dozen and women by the score. It is, in Mr. Fesperman’s eyes, a place where, “In every direction, tall, gleaming buildings were topped by spires, globes, and bizarre structures that resembled regal turbans and papal miters. It was as if the world’s most playful architects has been lured here by blank checks and a huge box of toys. … Sam decided this was how the Emerald City must have looked after the Wizard flew off in his balloon, taking all the rules with him.”

Sam is on his Dubai layover because he has been assigned to baby-sit 50-something Charlie Hatcher, one of Pfluger Klaxon’s quality control staff. Charlie, it seems, has a penchant for booze, women and troublemaking. A reluctant Sam has been assigned by his boss Gary Grimshaw and Pfluger Klaxon’s executive VP for corporate security and investigations Nanette Weaver (known around the office as “No No Nanette”) to keep Charlie on the (more or less) straight and narrow during the Dubai layover as the two men travel to Hong Kong.

The trouble starts when Charlie takes Sam to one of Dubai’s most notorious pickup joints, slips off with a woman and shortly thereafter turns up dead - shot, Sam is almost certain, by a couple of the Slavic-looking hoods known in Moscow as Byki.

And here is where things turn ugly. To Mr. Fesperman, Dubai is not so much a fantasyland as it is a Potemkin village. Behind all that glitz, gold and glamour, there is a dark side - an underworld, in which human trafficking, indentured servitude, prostitution, domestic violence and other equally nasty forms of crime exist, most of them pointedly ignored by Dubai’s ruling class and, indeed, by most of the Emirates’ denizens, who are content to share the wealth and gloss over the details of how that wealth was created.

Most of the cops in Dubai, for example, aren’t native - or honest. They are Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis or Syrians who are accustomed to their share of baksheesh. Shopkeepers? The stores may be run by Indians or Pakistanis, but the properties are largely owned by Emiratis who demand exorbitant rents.

Shortly after the murder of his colleague, Sam himself becomes a fugitive. Having dropped his protagonist into an alternative universe, Mr. Fesperman now puts him on the lam much in the same way Cary Grant’s advertising executive Roger Thornhill goes on the run in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

It is more or less at that junction that Sam’s path intersects with the beat of police Lt. Anwar Sharaf. At first glance, Sharaf is an “incompetent or inconsequential” officer in a silly green police uniform “with epaulettes and red piping, a canvas military belt, laced boots, a silly beret - a getup that would have been right at home in some banana republic.”

Fortunately for Sam, Sharaf is no fool. He speaks five languages, he reads Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” in the original Russian, and he has the ear (and the backing) of one of Dubai’s top ministers, for whom he troubleshoots. The minister asks Sharaf to look into Charlie Hatcher’s murder. And Sharaf ends up working with - and protecting - Sam.

Mr. Fesperman’s book is not without flaws. His Emiratis all too often seem little more than caricatures. We get a lot of description but very little visceral, cinematic prose, the sorts of ‘show me not tell me’ scenes that put flesh and blood on the bones of characters and bring readers to the edge of their seats. In some superficial ways, Mr. Fesperman’s Dubai cop is similar to Col. Faris al Ghazi, the Saudi state policeman in 2007’s “The Kingdom.” But for most of the book, Sharaf lacks the conflictions, sweat, blood and tears that the filmic character displays so effectively and economically.

Mr. Fesperman also has the annoying habit of inserting his back story in huge chunks, effectively interrupting the flow of his narrative and bringing the book’s action to a frustrating standstill. This unsettling technique carries on until about the last quarter of the book. Only then does Mr. Fesperman abandon it - allowing the pace and intensity of his writing to crescendo the way it should.

Another problem: In some areas - notably his knowledge of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security - his research has been less than duly diligent. And a third concern is Mr. Fesperman’s take on Middle Eastern culture. Wittingly or not, he displays tinges of the sorts of Eurocentric prejudices that Edward Said accused Western writers of often exhibiting when they dealt with Orientalist themes.

Still, Mr. Fesperman manages some wonderful touches. A jail scene is enlivened by an Islamist prisoner who tacks “inshallah” onto every sentence much the same way some American idiots lard their conversations with “y’know.”

And a confrontation between father and daughter - Lt. Sharaf and his headstrong daughter Laleh - becomes a passionate monologue about doing the right thing. “What will happen to us,” Laleh asks rhetorically, “if we do nothing. I can live with disapproval from the outside. But from within? You should know better than anyone how unbearable that might become.”

Flashes like these make Mr. Fesperman’s book worth reading. One wishes there had been more of them.

John Weisman’s CIA novels “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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