The latest release from ex-Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren, author of controversial Iraq reconstruction expose We Meant Well, is set during World War Two. We may find ourselves in 1940s Japan, but Hooper’s War aims its barbs dead-center at the contemporary conflagrations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The men and women in Hooper confront the complex ethical decisions of war, torture, drone-like killings, and the aftermath of moral injury and PTSD. This is an antiwar novel for people who enjoy a good war story—think Catch-22. Sometimes funny, sometimes deadly serious.” —Peter Van Buren
Hooper’s War is fiction, but if it reads anything like We Meant Well the mission will stick to you like the sweaty dust of reality itself:
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many other great war books. The food is bad and the environment gritty. The Colonel’s in charge; body armor’s strapped on; everybody piles into helos or Humvees to leave base. A young soldier, comrade torn by hot shrapnel, ignores the bloody gristle staining his cheek to stop the damn bleeding.
Throughout Peter Van Buren’s story, the screech of mortality hangs overhead.
After 20 years on the diplomatic beat ex-Foreign Service Officer Matthew Palmer has released his fourth tradecraft thriller: Enemy of the Good.
U.S.–Kyrgyz relations are at a critical juncture. The U.S. is negotiating the details of a massive airbase that would significantly expand the American footprint in Central Asia, tipping the scale in “the Great Game” among Russia, China, and the United States. The negotiations are controversial in the United States because of the Kyrgyz regime’s abysmal human-rights record. The fate of the airbase is balanced on a razor’s edge.
Second-generation Foreign Service brat Kate Hollister is assigned by the U.S. Ambassador—who also happens to be her uncle—to infiltrate a pro-democracy movement responsible for sabotaging the regime. Washington has taken an interest in the movement, and her uncle knows Kate has an in—many in the movement were high school classmates of hers.
It soon becomes clear that nothing about Kate’s mission is as it seems.
The American Foreign Service Association filmed a few short clips featuring my reflections on Two Pumps for the Body Man, the inspiration behind the novel, and my thoughts on the writing process. It isn’t exactly Zack Galifianakis Between Two Ferns (more like Some Guy and Bamboo) but I hope viewers will enjoy it when it becomes available.
While the footage gets some much-needed editing, I thought I’d share the text of one short segment now. Here’s how I framed my thoughts on the novel writing process (because I’m a writer and not a TV personality, the film version is unlikely to measure up to the prepared remarks).
My novels get written in one of two ways. There’s the linear way, from start to finish, and then there’s the other way. The linear way itself takes two forms: either I’ve laid out some kind of synopsis or outline from the very beginning and tracked closely to it, or I’ve freewheeled it chapter by chapter, letting the story find its own way into the world. The linear model seems to be neater, quicker, and more coherent—but not necessarily the most satisfying.
The other way, the way Two Pumps was written, was like working on a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces scattered all over the floor and the house and moved from house to house and country to country over the ten years it took to complete and publish. The job was to join disparate episodes, to shave this piece and build that one, to seek and identify episodes from years ago and connect them seamlessly to material written last night. The process was slow, cumbersome, and the trajectory of the narrative—even the primary point of view—didn’t emerge until years later.
Though tedious, and sometimes self-defeating—two steps forward, three steps back—the process was rewarding.
My only other thought on the novel writing process is that it’s as much about sitting down with pen and paper or keyboard and monitor as it is about state of mind. For me the so-called process is really a reaction—both inherent and trained through discipline—to experience. Do the people, places, events, details, etc., reach you only in the moment and as part of the world in which they actually occur? Or do they come at you with a richer, displaced value, something best discovered later on, in the attic?
The state of mind more fit for the novelist is the latter.
Beyond all that, the writing process is simply a numbers game: how many minutes and hours can you make yourself do it? But as my oldest fan tells me, that’s a question of discipline. Not process.
Remembering those we lost. Remembering those who survived. Remembering this awful day and its protracted aftermath.
It’s the aftermath that sticks most. The long period that stretched through weeks when our broken mission pulled itself together again. We pulled ourselves up from piles of ash and dust; from the pulverized concrete and glass shattered by bullets fired into the chancery; from the smoldering heap of a Marine house burned to the ground.
I remember the rifles mounted on alien tripods behind sandbags and concertina wire that popped up around the compound with the arrival of a Marine detachment. I remember the flickering lights along darkened corridors that cast jittery shadows for weeks as we made our way through routine in an effort to restore ourselves to normal.
I came upon this essay about the day itself in the third edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy (2011). I don’t need to read to remember, or to know that every day our diplomats put their lives on the line. Some wear a bigger target on their backs than others; some for longer periods. But we all serve in harm’s way, at some point.
Two more pieces worth reading. Two Pumps for the Body Man is a satire about diplomatic life on the front line of the war on terror.
B.A. East taught English Lit and Composition in Malawi as a Peace Corps Volunteer, at Brooklyn College Academy in New York, and at the American School of Asuncion in Paraguay. Later he joined the State Department’s Foreign Service, taking assignments in Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Ghana, Mexico, and Washington DC. New Pulp Press released his debut novel, Two Pumps for the Body Man, in March 2016.
Views expressed on this blog are my own & don’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer
I read with interest your letter and proposed film adaptation of Two Pumps for the Body Man. Though your concept falls short of my artistic vision for a film version of the book, I’m not opposed to exploring the matter further if you will concede a few preliminary points:
1. Our femme fataleneeds to be younger than what you propose. True, Angelina Jolie is ruinously beautiful, but she’s also ruinous, period. I can’t see past her lips.
Instead I suggest Scarlett Johansson. I do not like her very much, and find her unwatchable even in good movies like Lost in Translation—can Bill Murray cameo as Ambassador Glyder?—but when the two collide, personal taste must be subservient to artistic vision.
Ms. Johansson possesses all the right qualities for the role of Vanna Lavinia, a full-bodied mix of intelligence, assertive beauty, and blondness. There is something lascivious in her that is both repugnant and attractive at once. I want this.
2. Jeff Mutton, our poor gumshoe on the diplomatic beat, needs to be trim, sharp, and assured—until he becomes distracted, frightened, and overwhelmed by the threats—real and imagined—that surround him. I’d be willing to take your suggestion of Edward Norton for the role, but that does nothing for diversity in Hollywood.
Instead let’s get Chiwetel Ejiofor to play the part. He’s smart-looking, sexy, and knows how to act like a man under threat. Just re-watch 12 Years a Slave, which even the Academy had to admit deserved praise despite having so many black people in it. (I do worry about Ejiofor’s British accent, though. Can you do anything about that?)
While we’re on diversity: major characters such as my one-handed explosives specialist GLASSCOCK, my spy chief No-Lips, Colonel Windsock from the Office of Overseas Predator Strikes (OOPS), the Marines, Nurse, and the FARSA party coordinator Miss Wellstone, all should be representative of our diverse society. Ditto on the secretive submarine crew of Listoner, Buzz, and Specs.
3. Starter Roles: The novel’s other secondary figures need to be young unknowns who will turn around to become Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe after The Outsiders, or Jon Voigt after playing Joe Buck and Milo Minderbinder; Josh Brolin years after Goonies; Kevin Bacon after Animal House; Leo after What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?; ditto Johnny Depp and Nightmare on Elm St.
The exception to this rule is getting Aziz Ansari or Aasif Mandvi. Either will lend a swell comedic turn to the tragic fate awaiting the lone Muslim-American, Mohammed Amr Khan. Another exception on unknowns: I want Michael Cera, that lovely, lovable, dark Canadian dork. He can play anything, and play it well. He can bring out the pinstriped nerd in Tinker, the dark force behind bomb-builder GLASSCOCK, even the wry bemusement of our all-seeing Marshall Clements.
4. Director Finally, because the cast is necessarily low on female talent, let’s put a woman in the Director’s chair. Talya Levie. Her 2014 satire of life inside a female unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, Zero Motivation, gives me hope of striking the right blend of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. And there are important geopolitical implications to having a female Israeli Director for a film set in Saudi Arabia—perhaps a turning point for peace in the Middle East?
5. Finally, I will not attend film festivals and award ceremonies. Period, please, and thank you. But I am ok with hosting after hours parties. I’d like to get Tom Petty, Dire Straits, and Jack Johnson to play. At midnight, we can switch to Flo Rida and have him duel it out with Green Day.
Zeig heil to the president gasbag
Bombs away is your punishment
Pulverize the Eiffel tower
Who criticized your government
If you are ready to concede these points, I’ll allow you to review a draft of my overall cinematic vision (attached).
To my colleagues in the foreign affairs community, known and unknown, I regret that the artwork of my novel about your service has misrepresented the truth.
“BOO-ring,” LousyBookCoversDotCom hooted. “Showing you just how dramatic diplomacy can be.”
What an insult my cover must seem to those of us who serve our country. What an insult to those who’ve worked in places of difficulty, chaos, and danger. Ankara. Sana’a. Jeddah. Karachi. Peshawar. All of the scores of cities where our missions have come under attack in the last twenty years alone.
I did not mean to bury the drama of your work two decades ago in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, or longer ago in Beirut and Tehran. And I apologize now for misrepresenting the drama of our profession.
To those who’ve worn flak jackets and boarded helos and fully-armored vehicles to get to work, and those with a Sig on the hip and a rack full of Colts ready to hand. To those of us who’ve installed barricades and jersey barriers and other deterrents against protestors and terrorists and zealots seeking targets for their hatred. To those of you who presently stand upon the ramparts in crisis cities around the world, risking ruined marriages and happy homes in dedicated service to America: sorry to have let you all down.
My cover, a reflective skyscraper façade reaching toward a higher, blind authority, stamped to denote the hostile territory within Saudi Arabia, just cannot convey the drama of life on the front line of the war on terror. The effort missed its mark on the unimaginative.
I am sorry.
Certainly, it’s true there are some among us for whom the life is BOO-ring. Some do pass dreary hours as visa stampers and grommet punchers. But even these jobs are done behind explosion resistant glass for a reason. Even these jobs—eye-to-eye with deceit and terror on the front line of one crisis or another—provide more drama in a two-year tour than any lifetime spent as a book cover critic, peddling his services over the Internet.
So, while I regret the lacking drama on the surface of my book, I am grateful for the drama that lies beneath, and for the profession that gives us all a taste of it—more often than not unrecognized—in service to our country.
One week left in the Goodreads giveaway of Two Pumps for the Body Man. Follow the link at left to win a copy. Book reviewers can contact me directly for an electronic copy.
The Second World War HadCatch-22. The War on Terror Has 2 Pumps.
Jeff Mutton walks the diplomatic beat protecting American officials in Saudi Arabia. An expert with guns and knives, grenades and rockets, he’s survived assaults and sieges, stabbings and chokeholds, car bombs, carjackings, criminal hits, and countless other enemy threats. But instinct tells Mutton the menace he now faces dwarfs all these killers combined. The fool!—his foot fetish has him in hot water again.
“A wonderfully wacky consular bash in a place called The Kingdom, a nightmarish place straight out of Catch-22… haywire bureaucracy at its finest.”
-Robert Bruce Cormack, You Can Lead a Horse to Water
(But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)
“2 Pumps is an all-too-real satirical look at the war on terror, and America’s diplomats on the front line. Though full of laugh out loud descriptions of our State Department personnel at work, the story turns on a dime into a serious examination of the complexities of international relationships in a post-9/11 world. Be ready to smile — and think.
– Peter Van Buren, former Foreign Service Officer and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.
This review captures the tenor and purpose of Two Pumps for the Body Man with incredible brevity and precision. I wish I knew more about the reader, who goes simply by “B”. In some ways, that mystery (I know only that they also reviewed Soul Combat+ Ultimate Active Performance Over-Ear Headphones, Storm Black) adds to the satisfaction of having such an astute reader enjoy my work.
Calls to prayer sound off with derisive omniscience, echoing through a diplomatic station situated on, in front of, or perhaps somewhere closely behind the front lines of the War on Terror. There’s no place for logic in an ideologue’s world, we’ll soon learn.
In B.A. East’s Two Pumps for the Body Man, a farce within a farce, we find ourselves strangers in a strange land — although the most unfamiliar features belong to the people and machinations of our own government.
East writes, tongue appointed firmly in cheek, as someone who experienced the bureaucracy and doublespeak of the service firsthand, introducing us to diplomats and servicepersons who are subject to, or complicit in, the gears of the WOT. Their sensibilities range from vainly ambitious to hopelessly carnal and flippant, but each unique layer of pathos is disseminated with patience and dexterity, not unlike a report from an ambassador’s trusted advisor.
As outsiders sitting behind walls, barbed wire and panes of glass, all our characters know is shrouds and faceless silhouettes. The whispers of intel they gather are flawed at best and comically manipulated at worst. As readers engrossed in a great work of satire, we can empathize.
A satirist’s world is one of its own unyielding ideology, much like the Kingdom our characters find themselves stationed in. Like them we are logicians desperately trying to make sense of it all, and it’s only when we give in to the madness of the WOT that we can find peace.
This excerpt, from Chapter 17, reinforces the reviewer’s point. Our protagonist Jeff Mutton is flummoxed by a briefing in which the intelligence chief, No-lips, discovers the front line of the war on terror. Boy, will this intel make him look smart in the eyes of his Washington task-masters: the Vice President’s people at the mysterious Fourth Branch.