Gripping realistic tale of overseas journalist


September 26, 2004|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Warlord's Son, by Dan Fesperman, Knopf, 320 pages, $23

When a novel is ripped from the headlines, it can serve two purposessimultaneously: entertain and inform. Dan Fesperman's novel The Warlord'sSon is set in contemporary Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Osama bin Ladenmight be hiding. Better than any news dispatch and in a far more entertaining manner, the novel explains the search for bin Laden, the role of tribal warfare, the influence wielded by multinational corporations and the way journalists operate overseas in unfamiliar territory

Fesperman, a Sun reporter, has served as a foreign correspondent, including time in Afghanistan. Like many other journalists writing novels, he has chosen a journalist as a protagonist. Many journalist-novelists, despite knowing their craft, convey the reality poorly through their fiction. Not Fesperman. Protagonist Stan Kelly, known as Skelly throughout the book, is shot through with verisimilitude. Furthermore, he seems like flesh and blood, not the cardboard cutout that so many fictional journalists resemble.

Fesperman makes clear in his acknowledgement that he should not be confused with his protagonist. "No, I am not Skelly," he writes. "My wife and children will attest to that, although without their attractions I might have become some pale version of him, forever restless in search of the far-flung story."

To call Skelly restless is an understatement. He has reported warfare from country after country during his newspaper career, leaving three successive wives and children behind. Skelly, despite passing age 50, has agreed to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan in part because nobody else in his newsroom wants the high-risk assignment.

Shortly after arriving, Skelly hires a Pakistani interpreter/guide, called a "fixer" by foreign journalists. Known as Najeeb, the fixer is the other protagonist, the "warlord's son" of the title. Najeeb is as fully realized as Skelly; it is a rare feat for anAmerican journalist to create so rich a character from so foreign a culture as Pakistani tribal lands near the Afghanistan border.

A third important character is Najeeb's lover, Daliya, a young, beautiful Pakistani woman trying to find intellectual and emotional freedom in a repressive, fundamentalist, patriarchal culture. Again, Fesperman amazes, as a male creating a wholly believable female character.

The novel probably qualifies primarily as an adventure/action story. The violence level is high, and rendered so convincingly that at times I felt queasy. Fortunately for introspective readers, the violence is leavened by searing insights into human nature, giving The Warlord's Son an overlay of intellectualism, a word meant as praise. Whether in the adventure mode or the intellectual mode, the novel is compelling. I knew I could not sleep until finishing it. Then I could not sleep for hours after finishing it, especially given the plausible but wholly unexpected ending.

Fesperman is not new to fiction. His previous novels, Lie in the Dark and The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, have received praise. Readers can only hope that he is able to continue writing novels while continuing his newspaper employment; two careers can be difficult to juggle.

As a collector of novels featuring journalists, I am especially hopeful that Fesperman will continue to write in that genre. First-rate "journalism novels," as I call them, are rare. They serve an important function, helping non-journalists understand the craft that shapes so much of their knowledge. Foreign correspondence is especially important to readers who want to stay informed about the many nations of the world. Fesperman's novel explains, while always entertaining, why accurate accounts by journalists from seemingly strange lands are so difficult to produce. Language barriers are part of the difficulty, but the barriers far transcend the Tower of Babel.

Steve Weinberg is a former newspaper reporter and magazine writer now a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo. He has been collecting journalism novels for three decades. The collection, numbering more than 3,000 books, is housed at the University of Missouri library.

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