The most spectacular weapon displayed in the first Gulf War, launched by the first George Bush, was the Patriot missile. Military brass and Raytheon spokesmen gushed about this new defense system that could intercept Iraq's Scuds in flight. A congressional investigation later revealed that the Patriot was actually better at striking the public imagination than Scud missiles, but the illusion of perfect timing was enough to secure its success.
The same may be true in publishing. Launching a Gulf War book this month is like hitting a bullet with a bullet. No author could choose a more opportune moment, but it's extraordinarily difficult to synchronize a long-term project like a book with the fits and starts of geopolitical conflict. Two titles that might have passed relatively unnoticed at other times are being lit up brightly by the rockets' red glare. "Jarhead," a memoir by ex-marine sniper Anthony Swofford, has already climbed onto the bestseller list (review at right). Amazon.com is pairing it with a debut novel from Tom Paine, which makes common sense, because "The Pearl of Kuwait" is a kind of fictional counterpoint to Swofford's raw realism.
"The Pearl of Kuwait" opens in 1990, just before America's air bombardment of Baghdad. Private Cody "Cowboy" Carmichael is stationed on the USS Inchon with 800 marines in the Persian Gulf. He's a long way from the southern California beach where he grew up on wicked cool waves and developed his like awesomely stoked narrative style. His best friend is Tommy Trang, another 19-year-old marine, who's "just totally confident about his warrior skills." In fact, Cody says, "more than any other marine in my experience, Trang was hungry for trigger time so he could perform some heroics."
As the child of a Vietnamese woman raped by a US marine, Trang has grown up fiercely determined to redeem the image of the noble warrior. He does not smoke or swear, complain or tire. He is the very model of a modern major hero. He's always good to go, completely entranced by ancient legends of bravery and courage, with "his arms wide open to his golden future."
But of course, there's nothing to do. As Cody explains, "That was the whole problem with the official Persian Gulf War for Trang and me: from start to finish it was generally boring." The United States has developed weapon systems to protect almost all its combatants from active combat. And an effete public insists that the military exercise extreme "cultural sensitivity" toward the enemy.
What a strange lament runs under this funny novel. The kind of romantic, hubristic bravery that Trang radiates seems a poignant irrelevancy in a world where soldiers must snatch heroism from the robotic fist of automated victory. Drawn by visions of sacrifice and glory through months of arduous training, these young recruits are finally told, "This is a new kind of war, and with any luck, we won't need your services."
Driven to distraction by all his unutilized heroic energy, Trang enlists Cody to help him commandeer a helicopter so they can check out some ancient pearl beds nearby - if they can't play mythic soldiers, they'll play mythic pirates. They don't find any pearls, of course, but they do interrupt a suicide attempt by the Princess of Kuwait, a hot babe named Lulu (which means "pearl" in Arabic). Rescuing her saves them from a certain court-martial but also ignites a series of zany adventures through the Middle East.
"The Arabs were cool with craziness," Cody notes. Lulu is engaged to marry Colonel Fawwaz, a high-ranking lunatic in the Saudi royal family. In appreciation for returning his reluctant fiancée, the colonel treats these two wide-eyed marines to a celebration that displays all his grotesque violence, decadence, and rabid anti-Semitism.
Cody confesses, "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."
But everywhere they go, the Arabs are captivated by Trang, who projects an incongruous atmosphere of gung-ho Americana and Vietnamese exoticism, complicated by his claim that he's Jewish. High jinks ensue: Princess Lulu and Private Trang fall in love. He vows to save her from marriage to Fawwaz or death from Hussein. He outraces a camel nude (yes, both he and the camel are nude) and wins a young slave, whom he emancipates and fills with visions of Marine glory. They charge after Hussein with a troupe of traditional Bedouin dancers. Each new AWOL adventure leads to some more bizarre development, all propelled by Trang's desire to marry Lulu, bring the Bill of Rights to Kuwait, and earn a permanent place in Marine lore.
Paine marches a narrow line in this novel. Despite one calamity after another, he never sinks into the absurdist despair of "Catch-22" or floats away into the moral vacuity of "Hogan's Heroes." With the innocent voice of Cody, he reaches something closer to "Huckleberry Finn," a kind of clear-eyed naiveté that stumbles on cultural insights without any self-consciousness or political correctness.
On the eve of tragedy - both ours and Cody's - "The Pearl of Kuwait" offers a series of funny anecdotes in an untenable world of oil and repression. But the tissue of comedy tears easily when friends are eviscerated by friendly fire or starving Iraqis are consumed by fuel-air explosives. Technology has made so many advances in the manner of victory, but Paine makes clear that the old ghastly ways of dying haven't changed much.
"I was pretty sure we were not going to leave Kuwait," Cody speculates, "until Trang had done something big with his soldier talents to try and save this crazy Arab world." But the noble principles that he and his buddy believe they're defending are brushed aside in the interest of courting friendly dictators. "It was a very weird war," Cody admits. It's hard to imagine a character like Trang surviving for long, but if he's still in the service, I'm sure he's pumping his fist in the air and cheering America's new determination to make Iraq a model democracy. As Cody says, we've reached "a state of mind beyond whatever."
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com.