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Dan Fesperman reviews 'Donald,' by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott

By Dan Fesperman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 12:05 AM

It is tempting at first to dismiss "Donald" as a mere literary guerrilla action, a publication-day ambush by two clever writers whose narrative voice, to their credit, may sound more authentically like Donald Rumsfeld than the former defense secretary's memoir.

If you were to cast this stunt as a war movie, co-authors Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott would be the wily tricksters who don fake uniforms to slip behind enemy lines, speaking the language like natives and clearing all checkpoints until they vanquish the opposing general with his own diabolical weaponry.

The premise of their novella is this: What if Rumsfeld, who oversaw the creation of America's most elaborate system of extralegal imprisonment and interrogation since, well, maybe forever, what if he were captured and hooded one night and thrown into the maw of this same system, and then subjected to its pains and indignities, from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay?

While it's easy to imagine such an idea at the heart of a T.C. Boyle short story or a comic essay in the New Yorker, Martin and Elliott - they do sound like a comedy team - have attempted something far more daring and risky than a brief flight of revenge fantasy. The length alone poses a challenge. At 110 pages, the shock effect of their subversive joke is bound to wear off. Not that there isn't plenty of levity for a while.

In the opening pages, Rumsfeld snarks his way into our bad graces with the same bristly, self-justifying manner he often employed from the Pentagon lectern. We come upon His Crankiness in a library, doing research for his memoir. When an earnest young man approaches to ask questions, Martin and Elliott capture Rumsfeld's disdain:

"Down there in the kid's eyes, Donald sees broad leaves of intelligence but rooted in such soft soil that it might as well be sand. A zen garden. With a few green wisps that will blow flat at the first breath of wind. The world they live in is a blustery place. This is the son of a father who never went to war."

This is all great fun, at least for those who might be rubbing their hands together at the idea of his impending comeuppance, but when Rumsfeld meets his wife and some rather louche friends for dinner, love and nostalgia turn him into a bit of a softy. On a family level, at least, he's already eager to make amends.

Only after Rumsfeld is kidnapped from his waterfront estate on the Maryland Eastern Shore do the authors' deeper intentions become evident. It is also the moment when, in the wrong hands, the tone of this brief story might easily have become either too preachy (a Scrooge-like Donald seeing the error of his ways after his visitation of horrors) or too empty of humanity in its welter of detail (a chilly field report from Human Rights Watch).

Not that Rumsfeld doesn't get a full-frontal education on the idiocy and futility of the interrogation regime he helped create. He is questioned nonstop, teased with false hope, forced to stand for hours, shackled uncomfortably and besieged 24-7 by noise and harsh lighting. Interestingly, he is neither waterboarded nor sexually taunted, as some inmates have been. It is to the authors' credit that his softer treatment nonetheless comes across as debilitatingly hellish.

But his awakening to the ineffectiveness of these tactics - many of which he approved and endorsed - is never expressed overtly. It comes in the context of his deepening addlement and frustration, such as when, after months of captivity, a questioner asks if he can tell them anything about attacks being planned against cities.

" 'Do you know how long I've been here?' he says. He would like her to answer, because he's not sure he knows, but she waits him out. 'If I did know anything at one point, what would I know now? Where would the information come from?' "

Four pages later he is still learning, and still not aware of it: "Three men he's never seen before question him for hours, rotating one at a time. Can this still be part of a strategy? He doesn't even know what he's saying anymore."

By this time, the authors are no longer playing for laughs, except for a few lonely chuckles of the darkest sort, such as when, amid the gloom and confusion, Rumsfeld is suddenly haunted by the ghost of his own past words as he wonders, "How do you know what you know?" Yet for each moment like this, there are those in which Rumsfeld can't help but admire some of the young men and women in uniform he meets along the way. They are still cogs in his grand creation, after all, and products of fine training. Despite everything, each glimmer of military efficiency and bounty manages to satisfy him.

By using such touches and with lean and propulsive language, Martin and Elliott make it through to the end of this ordeal with both Rumsfeld's and their own humanity intact. Even as the grinding days turn their character's mind inside out, they carefully retain a kernel of his essence. In tone and style, he is still Donald.

Fesperman is the author of seven novels, including "The Prisoner of Guantanamo" and, most recently, "Layover in Dubai."

DONALD

, by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott.

McSweeney's. 110 pp. $12

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