'Patriots' -- from worse to whatever

January 13, 2002|By Ken Fuson | By Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

The Trouble With Patriots, by Tony Hays. Bridge Works Publishing. 225 pages. $22.95.

The most suspense generated by The Trouble with Patriots is whether author Tony Hays can pull it off. Can he raise this dismal novel from the ash-heap of mediocrity and place it on the throne of the memorably bad?

Indeed he can.

There is, of course, good bad writing and lousy bad writing. For years, the International Imitation Hemingway Competition has shown that good bad writing is hard to do (see George Plimpton's collection of the faux-Hemingway winners).

The difference is, those writers intended to write badly. Hays, presumably, has not, which makes his finished work even more remarkable. First, his timing is impeccable. The Trouble With Patriots is billed as a zany, satirical mystery set in Kuwait after the Gulf War. So we get the predictable rim-shots about "how little is known about deodorant in the Middle East" and foreign driving habits and the mighty strange ways other people dress. This crude, culture-based humor was lame long before Sept. 11, but it feels even more misguided now. No yuks here, just yucks.

To set the stage, our hero, Ed Duffy, is a 40ish American who has arrived in Kuwait to teach English to soldiers because he needs the money, and "throwing in the towel is too much like throwing in the towel." His wacky cast of fellow educators include an addicted boss, a pedophile and an insufferable roommate who believes he has cracked the conspiracy behind Gulf War Syndrome.

That's a good start, but true connoisseurs of bad writing require much more. We have standards, you know.

Is the plot hopelessly contrived? Within hours, it seems, Duffy becomes drinking buddies with the Russian consul and the lover of an American diplomat, whom he meets by ramming her grocery cart. But that's nothing. Wait until you encounter the incredible series of coincidences that allow Duffy to track down his missing roommate one night and then discover his drowned body the next.

Are the descriptions forced and offensive? "Blond, blue eyes, stacked like a dozen pancakes." And: "He made condescension into an art form, sort of the way Josef Mengele made lampshades out of human skin." Sort of? If you're going to make a ludicrous and nonsensical comparison, why qualify it?

Do the lovers converse in double entendres? "What a woman! What did I do to deserve you?" "Nothing yet. But come over tonight and I'll give you a chance to earn my devotion."

Do the attempts at humor lack subtlety? "Two guards were kicked back in their chairs, their M-16s lying aimlessly (no pun intended) across their laps." No pun granted.

Are there indications the author has given up? "But twenty minutes later, I began to realize that things were going from worse to ... whatever comes after worse."

Is there one paragraph that captures the book's overall spirit? "I hung up and wandered down the hall towards Kirby's room. A faint hint of cigarette smoke and stale body odor still lingered around the door. Sort of reminded me of my father."

The ending, naturally, is like one of those children's cartoons in which various characters keep removing their masks to show who they really are. The temptation is to recommend this book to reading groups for laughs, or to young writers who lack confidence. As bad writing goes, you'll find a delight on every page, but The Trouble With Patriots is, in the end, simply not worth the trouble.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register.

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