Globetrotting, do-gooding activist Leila Majnoun is “director, in-country” for a “bush-league NGO” trying to develop a public health campaign in Myanmar, “which sounded like a name cats would give their country.” David Shafer, in quick witty flashes, opens this debut novel with a rich, jaundiced portrait of both the good intentions and the corrupt, flawed global realities affecting development work. At its best — and WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is often very good indeed — Shafer delivers a generous, comic, politically-incisive absurdist thriller.
Myanmar is an often dangerous place, where an omnipresent “menace” limns every social engagement, “like walking by a man holding a stick, the man silent, the stick raised above his head.” But the diffuse danger of the place is given more urgency when Leila in her country-wide travels happens to see a strange vehicle and some out-of-place contractors.
The men give her the hairy eyeball, and she entreats her driver to make a quick departure. But Leila’s not one to shy away from injustice, and she sends a blast email to a group of friends who might be able to help her figure out what’s going on. She includes the GPS coordinates of the site.
And she triggers an outsized reaction from dark global forces, who scanning her email put her on a target list and immediately frame her father for a despicable crime. But Leila also comes under the scrutiny of others out there on the margins, and WTF begins throwing various balls into the air, juggling a host of subplots (portending some central significant uber-Plot), a complicated Pynchonian conspiracy-satire fueled by the 1%, the war on terror, the reach of global digital media, self-help fiddle-faddle, Occupy and fringe leftist revolutionary movements. Big, beefy topics.
Yet the book is grounded in careful, incisive portraits of its three main characters. Leila, trust-fund paranoid (but maybe on to something) manchild Leo, and slick poseur Mark (who’s busy exploiting a tossed-off bit of fluff as deep insight to daytime television and to major corporate players). At its best, WTF reads like a wicked splicing of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. The Majnoun family’s internal politics are dissected with the same casual expertise Shafer displayed in his portraits of various global sites (or situations). His humor bruises and bites, but–like Greene–there’s a rich, compassionate attention to even the most minor of characters. Leila’s initial driver appears only briefly, but his fate is keenly felt; even as Shafer raspberries around subjects of deep concern, from rendition to global surveillance, he maintains a firm grounding in the particular, concrete experiences of his particularized, fully-imagined cast. And like the best of Greene’s thrillers, the book hums and races, creating a compulsive energy complemented by Shafer’s attention to the characters facing the consequences.
Where the book stumbles, a bit, is in the expository clutter that comes with conspiracy thrillers. Shafer ends up filling in a lot of details, having to step back (or speak through some character in big thick blocks of explanation) to spell out what’s going on. In some hands (Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gibson) every stray detail seems to suggest a deeper connectivity–everything is tied into the big, sinister Plot, and anything might be salient — the reader’s paranoia is amped up, hyper-realized, turning the everyday into a foggy carnival of half-sensed wonder and dread. Alas, Shafer more often feels bogged down by details, more attuned to the central plot than to the grander themes suggested by his satirical targets.
Still, WTF is a general delight, particularly when Shafer uses the Plot as mere mcguffin, focusing his energies instead on the aside, the character at sea and unsure what’s going on. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is a rich, funny first novel. —Mike Reynolds