For Love and Byline

By Jay Mathews,
who writes about education for the Washington Post
Thursday, April 13, 2006

THE SAND CAFE

By Neil MacFarquhar

PublicAffairs. 377 p. $26

The promotional copy for this absorbing first novel calls it "a satire of modern war reporting" and a "black comedy," so readers may expect yet another attempt to mimic every reporter's favorite sendup of the trade's worst habits, Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop." MacFarquhar is a journalist, after all (he's the Cairo bureau chief of the New York Times), and could have invented his own Waughist dullards, con artists and wild tales of media overkill.

Instead, "The Sand Cafe" presents a world no different from what any reporter has ever faced covering a story big enough to draw a horde of competitors who skirmish over scraps of gossip, form temporary liaisons, plot career moves, eat poorly and stretch the truth (but not so much that the blogs might pound them into library paste). It is an interesting and revealing world, which shows that American-style journalism is driven more by competition between newspapers and networks than any desire to please the left or skewer the administration. MacFarquhar's humor has little of Waugh's English sense of the ridiculous, but few novels so honestly portray what reporting abroad is like in the era of the American colossus.

The hero, Angus Dalziel, is a victim of patronizing editors, manipulative sources and the alluring but remote TV correspondent he loves. Angus is in his twenties. It is 1990. He is covering the run-up to the Gulf War for a New York-based news service. He is sequestered with the rest of the impatient press corps in Saudi Arabia, looking for stories that will win him a job offer from one of the big newspapers. His deepest fears are not of the war but of failing to charm Thea Makdisi, a Lebanese American TV reporter whose interest in her career far exceeds her interest in him.

Angus wonders if it isn't all too shallow and easy, her willingness to sleep with him and share news tips. Like most journalistic labor camps of this sort, the exchange of passion and information runs together. There are many small episodes and no climaxes, matching perfectly what my wife and I saw when we were China reporters covering Pax America in Asia and had to put up with periodic gatherings of our fellow media vagabonds.

MacFarquhar lived in the Middle East as a child, studied it in college and clearly still savors its flavors. He also knows the reporters' turf well: "The average run for any story that Angus had covered since becoming a foreign correspondent -- a major earthquake, the death of a long-ruling king -- was about two weeks. His affairs had generally followed the same trajectory: Caterpillar to butterfly to dust in two weeks. Afterward everyone scattered. Occasionally, when the sex proved unusually magnetic or he was otherwise intrigued, there would be a follow-up rendezvous in Paris or Istanbul or some other exotic locale. But nothing ever jelled. Usually they just disintegrated into a series of recriminating faxes and phone calls."

Elements of suspense pull us through this knowing satire of the profession. Will Angus's war, as brief as it is, go well? Will he succumb to his growing sense that he needs Thea longer than the standard fortnight? Will the U.S. military handlers stop treating the reporters like buck privates? Will the Saudis' orgies and hypocrisies be exposed?

Nothing the main characters encounter seems as traumatic as what happened to MacFarquhar in the middle of his writing, when a runaway bus on Fifth Avenue knocked him off his bicycle and forced him into three years of relearning to walk. The book that emerged from that long period of inactivity reads like something by a man who appreciates the surprises of ordinary days and the entertainments of being hemmed in by strangers. It moves briskly, with nothing false to dispel the feeling that this is what journalists did in the previous Middle East war -- and in the latest one, too.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company