(Reviewed by Tony Ross AUG 26, 2006)
Veteran war correspondent Anderson sets his second novel amidst the U.S. diplomatic community in a small fictional quasi-Arab backwater, circa 1983.
I had enjoyed Anderson's non-fiction book about abducted aid worker Fred Cuny several years ago, and since I grew up in the Arab world in the '70s and early '80s in the U.S. diplomatic community, this new book interested me. In it, the fictional Kingdom of Kutar is an insignificant former British colony somewhat reminiscent of Oman or Yemen, with sparsely populated desert and mountains receding from the sleepy coastal capital. The story centers on David Richards, a 30-something USAID representative who splits his time between the day-to-day routine of embassy life and project management, and seducing stray expat women. The opening chapters set up his life as enjoyable, but somewhat devoid of meaning. He is roused from this torpor when, on his way back from a trip to the mountains to check on a water exploration project, he witnesses a surprising escalation of unrest from rebels who have been sporadically sparring with government forces since the end of British rule. It doesn't take long for a little unrest to snowball into major problem thanks to the incompetent meddling of the embassy's U.S. military attache and subsequent NATO intervention on the side of the government.
This is where the book stumbles just a bit. Up until here, Anderson has built a very solid fictional setting, along with a fairly astute observations of diplomatic life in a global backwater, and a cast of believable, if not entirely interesting, characters. However, the book veers from compelling drama into tragicomic farce with the introduction of Major Munn. The belligerent little Texan is so over the top, the only comparison that comes to mind is a unholy mix of Gen. Buck Turgidson and Gen. Jack D. Ripper (the George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden characters) from the film Dr. Strangeglove. And since it is Munn's enthusiastic idiocy that leads to all the tragedy that follows, one wishes Anderson had made him a more nuanced and plausible agent of change instead of "newspeak"-spouting cartoon figure.
In any event, before long, the rebels have got heavy artillery on the ridges surrounding the capital (rather like the Serbs and Sarajevo, one of the hotspots Anderson has reported from). When the rebels order all foreigners to leave the capital, David volunteers to stay behind as the U.S. representative, along with a longtime British resident diplomat, and a handful of others including a cynical war correspondent, an ancient Middle European countess, an Italian businessman, and a beautiful woman who is the Western-raised granddaughter of a northern tribal chieftain turned millionaire (guess which one eventually shares David's bed?). This motley group make the once-grand Moonlight Hotel their home during the weeks of siege that follow. As the rebels sporadically rain artillery, mortar, and sniper fire onto the capital (very much like Sarajevo) and morale crumbles, David and the British representative shuttle around to various ministries and attempt to broker some kind of solution with vague and/or contradictory guidance from Washington and London.
Although the communiques from the State Department to David are rather over-the-top examples of bureaucratic double-talk, this section is where the book really shines. Anderson displays how haphazard policies initiated by the U.S. can lead to huge suffering and loss of life on the other side of the world, with very little stateside media attention or consequences for decision-makers. As David comes to realize that his government has created a mess only to utterly abandon it, his outrage and frustration grows until his conscience compels him to take a stand. This transformation isn't wholly convincing and is kind of cliche -- it seems rather implausible that any Foreign Service officer would make it to their mid-'30s without already come to the various realizations that he does over the course of the story. It doesn't help that David's ultimate "bold move" wouldn't actually be possible in real life (this involves his accessing $7,000,000 in the embassy safe, a figure that is about ten times the real amount an embassy of that size would have had on hand).
The book has a number of other minor flaws that make it a step down from outstanding. The shifts in tone between straight drama and farcical satire don't work very well, and as a protagonist, David isn't particularly compelling. His relationship with the wealthy Kutari woman seems kind of pro forma, and a backstory about his brother's death in Vietnam doesn't add the depth it's clearly meant to. Still, in most respects, Anderson writes with authenticity and insight about the era in which America's diplomats became subordinate to its military, with all the shameful real-life suffering and consequences that shift continues to result in.
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Moonlight Hotel at Doubleday
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Distant Fires (1990)
- The 4 O'Clock Murders (1994)
- The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of an American Hero (1999)
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- New York Magazine interview with Scott Anderson
- The Age review of Triage
- New York Times review of Triage
- WorldandI.com review of Triage
- Bold Type on The Man Who Tried to Save the World
- Salon.com review of Moonlight Hotel
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About the Author:
Scott Anderson is a war correspondent and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. His work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper’s, Outside, and many other publications. Over the years he has written from Beirut, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Israel, Sudan, Sarajevo, El Salvador, and a number of other war-torn areas.
Anderson lives in upstate New York.