The Warlord's Son
by Dan Fesperman
Published by Bantam Press UK
388 pages, 2004
The Scoop of a Lifetime
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
The examination of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks through fiction is, understandably, a fairly recent phenomenon. There is the issue of publishing lead time, and worries that the subject was simply too raw for writers to deal with honestly. However, as the third anniversary of 9/11 approaches, several notable novels, especially on the crime fiction side, have done -- or at least attempted to do -- just that. In Small Town (2003), Lawrence Block used the aftermath of the attacks to pen a heartfelt, twisted love song to New York City; John le Carré's Absolute Friends (2004) offered up a searing indictment of the subsequent war in Iraq; and S.J. Rozan's upcoming standalone, Absent Friends (the similar title is merely coincidental), will focus on the heroics of the New York Fire Department and how a few individuals cope with the loss of their friends and loved ones.
Those particular books, however, are not war novels. They do not deal with the immediate after-effects of the attacks: the fight to reclaim Afghanistan from the fundamentalist militants who harbored -- and may yet still harbor -- Osama bin Laden and his immediate underlings. Even though current news has relegated that former Taliban-controlled nation to the backburner in favor of the goings-on in Iraq, Dan Fesperman's thoughtful new novel, The Warlord's Son, turns back the clock to a time, not so long ago, when forays into Afghanistan were seen as the scoop of a lifetime -- especially because the prospect of being killed was so high. Against this backdrop of imminent danger and constant intrigue, Fesperman relates the story of two men who are completely dissimilar on a superficial level, but are more alike than they realize -- two men who must soon learn to depend on each other, even when such a choice is the most perilous decision each can make.
Stanford J. Kelly -- known as "Skelly" to all, including his pair of ex-wives and his current spouse -- was once a highly sought-after foreign correspondent who never met a war zone he didn't like. The Gulf War, Bosnia, Rwanda -- he covered every one of them with relish. But in the aftermath of September 11, he's been relegated to the American Midwest, where he reports on suburban trivialities. A burnt-out shell of his former self, now trying to make a go of his current marriage and latest child, Skelly longs for a change. And then, one day, his bureau desk chief calls, in need once more of this journalist's skills. "Help us understand," the editors ask, "why do they hate us?" So off Skelly goes to Peshawar, even though the burnout is still fresh and Pakistan is just another war-torn country for him:
Skelly felt tired just watching, if only because [Peshawar] reminded him of every other capital of world misery he'd visited -- Managua, Baghdad, and the deserts of Kuwait. Sarajevo and Pristina. Mogadishu and Goma. Port au Prince and Panama City. Hebron and Gaza, Khartoum and, then, there at the last, Monrovia, deep in the anarchy of Liberia -- the very capital of random death. Malice and cunning had grinned from thin faces and deep-socketed eyes, every gun barrel following him like a stare.
What Skelly's prior experience has taught him is that he cannot survive in a country where he doesn't speak the language and barely knows the customs, and hope to exist in a high-alert state without someone who will be his eyes, his ears and his access to the big stories and would-be scoops. What he needs, and what he gets, is a "fixer." For some, the relationship with a fixer is nothing more than cool and cordial. For others, the fixer becomes an adopted family member. When Skelly first meets Najeeb, he merely wants to use the younger man for his supposed gift as an entrée into forbidden territory, to get himself into Afghanistan in order to track down the one fugitive the entire world seeks above all others: bin Laden. But Najeeb, the prodigal son of an Afghan tribal warlord, with several years of American education under his belt, is more than a mere fixer, especially as he has a great many problems of his own.
Disowned by his father after inadvertently leaking information about the warlord's activities in one of the Afghan border towns, Najeeb is an outcast, barely in communication with family members who spend most of their time trying to betray and double-cross each other. He's trying to outrun the reach of the ISI, a shadowy pan-Arabic intelligence organization that wants to use him for its own purposes. And he's beginning a relationship with Daliya, a young woman with her own shadows and conflicts, who struggles to maintain some semblance of modernity, although expressions of such can lead to severe consequences. Najeeb's conflicted loyalties threaten to overwhelm him, but in his role of fixer, he hopes to find his own redemption as well, and perhaps his way home to the family that had cast him out.
Before Najeeb can do so, he must join forces with Skelly and make the journey north across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, ostensibly in search of Mahmood al Razaq, one of the many ex-mujahideen who hope to stake a claim to leadership of the new Afghanistan. But their attempts to make contact with al Razaq backfire dramatically, and the two men must unite their underlying agendas of personal redemption in a last-gasp attempt to stay alive in dangerous territory.
As the two men make their way across the border towns, Najeeb realizes with amazement that he and Skelly share a similar worldview:
"Do you travel much?" Najeeb asked, curiosity piqued.
The concept of bringing together two different men from disparate worlds is a well-worn one in fiction, but Fesperman more than pulls it off, because in the context of a war being waged, it is believable. Skelly may have covered a wide range of cultures and countries, but never has he done so with the level of desperation he shows here. Afghanistan is his last chance to show the world, and more importantly, himself that he's still a viable player capable of ferreting out the most important stories. Even though he's alienated from nearly his entire family (with the exception of his eldest daughter, who makes a point to reach out), while his current wife, Janine, worries that he'll be "brought home in a box," Skelly still takes the risk of venturing into a foreign land and hunting down leads, because it's the only life he knows, and the only one that still matters -- even if looking for the ultimate scoop may prove to be his ultimate downfall.
Najeeb has much to prove as well, and much on the line. He is a man of tremendous conflicts: Afghan tribal culture versus American freedoms, family splintering and choosing sides, the pressures of doing covert espionage work because he has no other choice, thanks to his earlier decisions. He, too, is looking for a way to feel alive when his whole world is going to hell, and so even when he initially wishes to be as far away from Afghanistan as possible, he realizes that only by crossing the border can he resolve his inner demons.
Author Fesperman, whose career as a foreign correspondent with the Baltimore Sun already served him well in two prior novels about the Balkan wars -- Lie in the Dark (2002) and The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (2003), which won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award -- is ideally suited to telling this latest story. In other hands, the devil-may-care attitudes of journalists may have had to vie for space with the details of war or with giving a history lesson in how many cultural differences there are within various Pakistani and Afghan areas, let alone between those countries and Western ones. But all of these ingredients meld together in Fesperman's fiction to support finely crafted characters who can carry the story on their collective backs.
Not to be overlooked in this regard is Daliya, who is of far more than amatory interest here. She proves to be courageous in her own right, taking risks to meet her lover -- and eventually, save his life -- that Western women couldn't possibly comprehend. When things go awry and Daliya is forced to go underground, Fesperman paints a portrait of a woman in dire straits, but one who is never so desperate as to be helpless. It's to Fesperman's credit that he makes Daliya responsible for her own fate, but tempers her adventurousness with well-needed fear.
Ultimately, The Warlord's Son is a story of humanity, of how primal instincts come to the forefront in dangerous situations. But it's also about friendship and loyalty and redemption, either achieved or disappointed. With the same compassionate prose style that marked his earlier works, Dan Fesperman has crafted one of the must-read novels of the year by tackling a tricky subject head-on and indirectly at the same time. Yes, this is a novel about September 11, but it's also a great deal more. | July 2004