Intelligent thriller explores mystery behind the fences at GuantM-anamo

Review Novel

July 16, 2006|By CHARLES MATTHEWS | CHARLES MATTHEWS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE PRISONER Of GUANTNAMO

Dan Fesperman

Alfred A. Knopf / 336 pages / $24

The problem with writing a novel whose story is ripped from the headlines is that the headlines keep coming after the novel is published. Obsolescence sets in.

But Dan Fesperman knows something about headlines: As a reporter for The Sun he's been responsible for quite a few of them. And he knows something about novels: He's one of the best writers of intelligent thrillers based on contemporary events working today.

So, even though headlines about GuantM-anamo keep coming - most recently about the suicides of three detainees and the Supreme Court's ruling against military tribunals - Fesperman's new novel, The Prisoner of GuantM-anamo, hasn't lost any of its edge and urgency.

Set in the summer of 2003, before the hubris in the phrase "mission accomplished" was fully evident, the novel centers on Revere Falk, an FBI interrogator whose fluency in Arabic has gotten him assigned to GuantM-anamo, a place he knows well. Falk's "pet project" is a young Yemeni, Adnan el-Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan. Falk has gradually earned Adnan's trust, and one day the detainee decides to give him a "great gift" - the name of a key figure in Adnan's al-Qaida cell. Falk initially hears the name as "Hussein," but Adnan insists that it's "Hussay," which confuses Falk, because it's not a common Arabic name. The interview is interrupted before Falk can probe further.

Meanwhile, Cubans have found the body of an American soldier washed up on the shore on their side of the fence. Falk, the son of a Maine lobsterman, is an experienced sailor and knows that if the soldier had drowned while swimming, bay currents would make it impossible for the body to drift toward the Cuban side. A boating accident seems equally unlikely. So Falk gets involved in the investigation.

The Arabic-speaking interpreters and interrogators are regarded with suspicion on the base, especially by the rank-and-file soldiers, who "tended to hear from their officers 24/7 that each and every one of the detainees was a hardened killer and an experienced terrorist, who in at least some way shared responsibility for 9/11. It was part of the effort to keep them motivated and boost their morale." So when a translator working for a security contractor at GuantM-anamo is arrested and there's a sudden influx of investigators from Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, Falk gets wary.

He's also surprised that one of the investigators is an old friend, Ted Bokamper of the State Department. Falk owes a lot to him. When Falk was a young Marine stationed at GuantM-anamo, he was curious about the Cuba just over the fence, so he made an unauthorized trip there while on leave and fell into a trap set by Cuban intelligence agents, who blackmailed him into passing along information about the base.

Panicked, he got in touch with Bokamper, whose mentor at the State Department, Saul Endler - "one part Kissinger and two parts alchemist" - saw that it could be useful to know what sort of information the Cubans wanted Falk to provide. Bokamper and Endler helped set up Falk as a double agent. Later, Bokamper helped Falk get a security clearance to join the FBI, which doesn't know that Falk has been spying for the State Department.

So now, along with Adnan's cryptic revelation, the soldier's mysterious drowning and the translator's arrest, Falk gets word that his Cuban contact wants to meet. Something's going on, but what? In the course of figuring it out, Falk will learn the wisdom of the adage "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." If, that is, you can tell which is which.

There's some standard thriller plotting here, with the usual shadowy alliances and betrayals, a bit of action and some hide-and-seek chases, and the ending has something of an anticlimactic feeling. But what makes the novel work is the attention to detail, especially Fesperman's evocation of GuantM-anamo - aka "Gitmo" - itself. He gives us the physical layout - the 45 square miles of swamp, 6 square miles of which is habitable; the barracks and the detention facilities; the fences and the sea; the soldiers, American and Cuban, keeping a steady eye on each other - but he's even better at creating the emotional atmosphere, the tedium and the tension, the paranoia and the boredom.

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