The Pearl of Kuwait
by Tom Paine
Published by Harcourt
310 pages, 2003
War is Funny as Hell
Reviewed by David Abrams
War is no laughing matter.
So how is it that Tom Paine can split our sides with a novel best described as "a totally cool surfer dude has a gnarly Lawrence of Arabia Meets Huckleberry Finn-ish experience in the Gulf War"? By the time the picaresque adventure of two Marines on a mission to rescue a Kuwaiti princess finally winds down, The Pearl of Kuwait has done an awesome job at making us alternately grin at and grieve over the Desert Storm combat experience -- but mostly grin.
Following in the bootprints of war comedies like Catch-22, M*A*S*H and Three Kings, Paine's debut novel convinces us that war is not only hell, it's funny as hell.
In a review of Paine's previous collection of short stories, Scar Vegas, January Magazine reviewer Charles Smyth said that Paine "writes in a direct, forceful style reminiscent of Hemingway's." In his first novel, there's plenty of prose that moves forward like a rattling machine gun. On the other hand, fans of the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High will recognize a breezy Jeff Spicoli attitude that wraps everything -- war, peace, love -- in a "party on, dude" aura.
The Pearl of Kuwait appears at a particularly awkward time, of course. Many readers might avoid a story that turns Persian Gulf combat into a carnival with a chorus of wacky Arab dudes and camels sprinting across Kuwait toward Iraq. Do we laugh or cry? Or do we just wait to read the book when our TV screens are less blood-spattered?
I finished The Pearl of Kuwait precisely one day before coalition bombs started raining on Baghdad, and so I had no grim battlefield images to offset the jaunty, jocular tone the book adopts from the first paragraph. Re-reading the novel now might leave a bittersweet taste in my mouth. This takes nothing away from Paine's impressive talent on the page -- it's just a cautionary note for readers who might not find a Gulf War comedy such a tonic and comfort right now.
For those willing to laugh at the crazy antics of Saddam Hussein (circa 1990), The Pearl of Kuwait richly rewards with its one-of-a-kind voice -- the laid-back patter of Marine Private Cody Carmichael, our unflappable guide through a series of AWOL adventures he shares with compatriot Private Tommy Trang, a Vietnamese-American whose head is filled with romantic notions of bravery -- none of which have to do with computer-guided weapons systems, but rather charging across the sands waving a sword while yelling "Death to the infidels!"
Trang, a memorable character on the order of John Irving's Owen Meany, barrels his way through the book and into our hearts with his uncompromising heroism and die-hard love for Kuwaiti Princess Lulu who he and Cody save from drowning one night when the two Marines are pearl diving in the "piss-warm waters of the Persian Gulf." Tommy Trang is a larger-than-life hero -- he doesn't smoke, drink or swear, and he's so ready for combat he's like a Patriot missile itching to launch into the sky. Here's how Cody describes him:
Tommy Trang's favorite book was Winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor and he stuck his grinning face in it every day for an hour, like others read the Bible. The more he read that book of mostly dead war heroes like Smedly Butler and Herman "Hard Head" Hanneken, who had earned their country's highest military honor for valor, the more bummed Trang was that we were like just steaming in circles around the Persian Gulf. He was just totally confident about his warrior skills, Tommy Trang. More than any other Marine of my experience, Trang was hungry for trigger time so he could perform some heroics. Most Marines wrote him off as a cocky gook, but as a surfer I got a kick out of his stoked vibe of superiority.
The kicker is that Tommy's mother was a Saigon prostitute raped by his father, a U.S. Marine. Paine never has Tommy fully face up to this emotional conundrum, but you can just imagine the kind of psychological baggage that's fueling his stoked warrior spirit.
When he saves Lulu from drowning in piss-warm waters, it's love at first sight for Trang. Later, our heroes learn Lulu is trapped in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and set off with a "hoo-ah!" to rescue her. The result is a series of zany adventures which include tangling with a lunatic Saudi colonel (who also happens to be Lulu's fiancé), disrupting a wedding feast, banding together with dancing Bedouins, organizing the Democratic Resistance of Kuwait, and plotting to assassinate Saddam. There's never a dull moment in Cody's breathless, stream-of-mellow-consciousness narrative.
The novel's not a total laugh-riot, however. Paine includes some heart-wrenching scenes where the horrors of war leave us dry-mouthed and sober. In the instant before Trang and Cody plunge off on another jaunty romp, we realize the grim violence has lurked beneath the comedic veneer all the time, just waiting to catch us off-guard. Sad as they are, those moments are the true heart of the book, cold slaps of reality made all the more real by today's headlines.
In these times of televised combat chaos, Tom Paine reminds us that even the funniest wars are hell. | April 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.