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The Prisoner of Guantanamo A Novel Dan Fesperman Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $24

July 09, 2006|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, former book critic of The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

THE world almost universally condemns Guantanamo Bay's limbo, where suspected terrorists are held without term, uncharged and subject to abuse. Widespread criticism has also come from U.S. legal circles, not to mention civil rights groups and much of the media. The recent suicide of three prisoners has sharpened the dismay, and even President Bush has said that he'd like to close the detention camp if only he could figure out how. Perhaps the Supreme Court's intervention late last month will sharpen the figuring.

All of which gives Dan Fesperman's intricate novel of paranoid intrigue a timing that many popular authors would all but die (if not be interned) for.

"The Prisoner of Guantanamo" is a political thriller of sorts. Its larger, or what could be called its outside, story has rival factions in the U.S. government, military and intelligence communities competing murderously to extract from the Guantanamo detainees a pretext for war with Cuba. Much of this is woolly and murky rather than suspenseful. Even given how far the twists of our domestic- and foreign-security efforts have fetched us, it feels far-fetched. Not so much in its substance, perhaps, as in its take-it-for-granted presentation, at once slapdash and gnarled.

Nevertheless, until the author hauls down a thunderhead of cloudy Washington conspiracy into the camp, "Guantanamo" has a real impact. Timeliness aside, Fesperman achieves a fascinating picture of a miniature security state thriving, like some anaerobic organism, in airless insulation from the inhibitions of a larger civil society. It is a hive of compartmented secrecies, competing factions, small obsessive purposes and lethal rivalries. Its fundamental unacknowledged futility is voiced by Revere Falk, a disillusioned and finally rebellious FBI agent and the novel's protagonist.

Most of what the detainees have to offer, he has learned, are "threads, not patches, and even then it was often the same frayed material from one week to the next. Of all Gitmo's secrets, this may have been its deepest and darkest. The more the daily millstone of blab turned, the less it produced. The bulk of Camp Delta's population had been tapped out for months."

Fesperman vividly portrays the cliques and divisions. At the common mess hall, the various groups sit separately. The few interrogators who know Arabic are viewed with suspicion by the security staff; one, a Lebanese, is arrested, and other arrests are rumored to be imminent. No reason is given. In this festering world, need to know has metastasized into need not to know.

Falk, an ex-Marine from a hardscrabble Maine background, is the story's moral center and, in the camp's moral chaos, its eventual rebel. Tough but thoughtful, he speaks Arabic, a skill that earns him a place as one of the FBI's interrogators. His tactic is to try to win the prisoners' confidence, overcoming resistance through compassion -- or, as he thinks of it, cutting a gemstone and revealing a facet. This sets him at odds with interrogators from military intelligence and the CIA, who practice the harsh methods made infamous at Abu Ghraib.

Falk makes apparent progress with Adnan al-Hamdi, an obdurately silent Yemeni, who, in response to sympathetic treatment, begins to divulge the name of his Al Qaeda contact. Then a CIA interrogator barges in, reducing Adnan to near-psychotic silence. Later, to Falk's angry bewilderment, Adnan is abruptly removed to a special CIA compound, where the hardest cases undergo the most barbarous treatment.

Inexplicable events quickly follow. Falk's girlfriend, a sensitive Army interrogator, is briefly detained. Falk is suddenly detached to investigate the death of a guard found drowned and washed up -- oddly, in view of the prevailing tides -- on the Cuban side of the line. Equally suddenly, Falk is removed and the case is given to a high-level three-man team dispatched from Washington. One of the three, an old friend of Falk's, explains their real mission: to glean evidence of a terrorist link to Cuba. Adnan may hold a key; hence his abduction. Before long, the mission's members, each working for a different hawk faction in Washington, are spying on one another. Soon afterward, Falk flees the island in a small boat and joins forces with a Cuban spy, equally disillusioned, in Miami.

Don't try to follow this. It's hard enough trying to follow it in the book. Fesperman has fallen into a classic trap of the stylish contemporary thriller. To thicken the atmosphere of paranoid mystery, the facts are dimmed to the point where not just the protagonist but the readers lose their way.

Moreover, Fesperman's characters and their relationships are thinnish, generated by the plot instead of generating it, as they do in the novels of Graham Greene, John le Carre and Alan Furst. The prose is efficient, though -- and mostly lively, with only an occasional tinny clang. At its best, this is the can-do prose of the mid-level action novel, not the almost-can't-do stretch of finer work. *

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