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War is hell

The Sand Cafe A Novel Neil MacFarquhar PublicAffairs: 376 pp., $24.95

April 30, 2006|Chris Ayres | Chris Ayres is Los Angeles correspondent for the Times of London and the author of "War Reporting for Cowards."

THE 1991 Persian Gulf War was strangely unsatisfying in the cynical terms of hard-news journalism. Reporters were embedded not on the front lines but in dingy Saudi Arabian hotel rooms, hundreds of miles from the action. Technology was advanced enough to make the fighting appear clinical but not enough for TV networks to deploy the videophones and gun-cams that have turned our current big-budget sequel into one long reality show. As for the ground invasion, it lasted a mere five days, with no toppled and shoe-beaten statue of Saddam Hussein as payoff. The journalistic frustrations were summed up pithily by P.J. O'Rourke: "I have spent most of my time [in Saudi Arabia] watching CNN, to see what's happening to me."

Holed up in one of those crappy, excessively air-conditioned Saudi hotels was Neil MacFarquhar, then a correspondent for the Associated Press. Judging by "The Sand Cafe," his novel about the experience, he spent most of this time dodging the religious police, craving booze, butting egos with an officious editor in New York and, well, sleeping with his female colleagues. Not that "The Sand Cafe" is a bridge-incinerating journalistic tell-all. MacFarquhar, who now works for the New York Times (he just finished a stint as Cairo bureau chief), has changed details, merged characters and generally made stuff up. This is, after all, a work of fiction -- except, perhaps, for an anecdote about a talk-show host called Geraldo, who inspired jealousy in his rivals when the Pentagon assigned him his very own chopper.

The problem, of course, is that when such press corps tittle-tattle is redeployed after 15 years, it loses much of its effect. This is a recurring flaw in "The Sand Cafe," which took MacFarquhar a decade to write. Too often, the book reads like a collection of reporters' off-cuts -- the kind of material that might get posted on blogs these days -- without much of a unifying plot.

MacFarquhar's protagonist is Angus, a reporter who (please act surprised) works for a fictitious wire service called World Press. Angus inherited wanderlust from his father, who read him adventure stories, but he has come to rue the cost to his personal life. "[T]he trade-off was a certain creeping loneliness," writes MacFarquhar, "a hollow spot slowly opening deep among his organs that he sometimes imagined he could find, pushing aside his kidney and his stomach to wriggle a finger in the void."

While waiting for the ground offensive to begin, Angus spends his days in the Dhahran Palace Hotel, scrabbling around for something other than lame "color" stories -- camels eating Christmas cookies -- and obsessing about a television reporter called Thea. He also deals with corrupt Saudi men, oppressed Saudi women and, of course, his nemesis: an uber-macho, serial-philandering producer called Aaron Black, who once allegedly torched a Vietnamese village to get better pictures.

Unfortunately, MacFarquhar captures Angus' boredom rather too effectively, without the weapons-grade wit that made O'Rourke's "Give War a Chance" such a blast. Because the character's pursuit of news and romance is so annoyingly one-dimensional, the narrative begins to feel exhausting after a while. It's no shock that he should fall for Thea -- a woman so irritatingly work-fixated that she ends one bout of lovemaking by cooing, "I am sure this story has legs and knowing you are going to be here at the end of every day will make all the other petty hassles so much easier to tolerate."

MacFarquhar's point is that combat journalists are so obsessed with their jobs that they often forget the real consequences of war. Or, for that matter, the consequences of their bed-swapping. As one colonel puts it, the Scud Studs and Patriot Babes of the TV networks "treat the entire theatre of war like one extended Sand Cafe." All of which is true. But does it tell us anything new, especially in an age when journalists are sought by insurgents as high-value kidnap targets, to be paraded and beheaded on the Internet?

More interesting is MacFarquhar's detailed account of daily life in Saudi Arabia, a rare glimpse into a kingdom that is now virtually impenetrable to Westerners. Through Angus' eyes, we see a comically oppressive and hypocritical country, where women cannot drive their own cars, couples must produce a marriage certificate before renting a hotel room and men are happy to let Americans die to protect them because they can't be bothered to do it themselves. "You don't think I want my young nephews at the front lines," explains one particularly repulsive Saudi character, "getting killed by Iraqi soldiers for the sake of freeing Kuwait?"

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