I’m a sucker for novels starring war correspondents, especially those set in tropical climes. You know what I’m talking about here—rumpled, sweat-stained seersucker suits; constant consumption of gin and tonics (ostensibly to fight off malaria); a few days’ growth of beard (before that look became hip); and, most important, a sense of constant innuendo hanging (like a ubiquitous cloud of cigarette smoke) over the denizens of the press club, most of whom can’t be roused from their lethargy to investigate the Big Story that just might be lurking out there somewhere in the humidity, beyond the ceiling fans. Our hero is as dissolute as the guy on the next bar stool, but somehow, he’s not quite so lethargic as to ignore signs of the Big Story on the horizon.
Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1956) is really the godfather of the war correspondent novel. British journalist Fowler, idly covering the French war in Vietnam, knows dissolute down to his gin-soaked pores, but when he picks up hints that the Americans are limbering up in the on-deck circle, ready to pinch-hit for the failing French at trying to win an unwinnable war, he knows he’s on to something. As an additional spur to action, it doesn’t hurt that the “quiet American”—a lethal ideologue who foments wars as casually as he buys the next round—happens to be interested in stealing Fowler’s girl. If you’re a writer trying to learn how to tread water in a sea of moral ambiguity, look to Greene as your role model.
You can find the Greene influence in the work of two contemporary novelists: Kent Harrington and Robert Olen Butler. In Harrington’s Red Jungle (2005), the dissolute correspondent is Russell Cruz-Price, who buys a run-down coffee plantation in hopes of finding on its grounds the legendary Red Jaguar, a giant Mayan sculpture made entirely of jade. It doesn’t help that he also falls for the wife of the head of Guatemala’s secret service. One minute you’re sipping a drink at the club; the next minute you’re deep in the heart of darkness.
In Butler’s The Hot Country (2012), Christopher Marlowe Cobb (call him “Kit”) is a newspaper war correspondent in search of action, so naturally he winds up in Veracruz in 1914, just as the US is staging a very peculiar mini-invasion. Kit would like to get to the bottom of that, and he would also like to score an interview with Pancho Villa. Then there’s the matter of the Mexican woman who may be a laundress but may also be something very different—and with whom Kit has very definitely fallen in love. The plot of this multistranded thriller is at times difficult to follow, but the character studies, sense of place, and mood are utterly gripping. Cobb definitely breathes the same air as Greene’s Fowler and Harrington’s Cruz-Price, but he can hold his own with them and all the other fictional war correspondents at evoking that irresistible mix of been-there-twice-seen-this-shit-before cynicism and its polar opposite, an unquenchable desire to find out if the next card turned just might be something special.
BILL OTT is editor and publisher of ALA’s Booklist.