By Christopher Dickey. Simon & Schuster. 276 pp. $24
"The novel is a mirror being carried down the length of a road." So wrote Stendhal, in his famous dictum about realism. It's a deceptively complex statement, speaking to the profound questions involved in a moving observer -- the writer -- recording a changing reality. But it also speaks to the novelist's prime directive: that he do his best to see the truth of the world around him and convey that truth to the reader.
The Sleeper, a novel by Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and a world-class expert on terrorism and intelligence, begins very much in the real world: The place is a small town in Kansas, and the time is the morning of Sept. 11. The first-person narrator, Kurt Kurtovic, at home with his daughter after his wife has gone to work, watches the Twin Towers fall on TV -- as all of us did. Unlike the rest of us, he responds by going out to his garage, opening a locked refrigerator and transferring a strange container holding an unnamed substance to, of all places, the freezer in the restaurant where his wife works. Then he sets out to save the world: to hunt down the people who attacked New York.
He's uniquely qualified for this quixotic task. Not only is he an ex-U.S. Army ranger who fought in Panama and the Gulf War, an expert in warfare and killing. He's also a reformed terrorist himself: The American son of a Bosnian Muslim, he has served time with the mujaheddin in Bosnia, from which he returned with his mysterious vial of evil, "a terror to end all terrors . . . a plague that would decimate the nation's children." Arriving home, however, he could not bring himself to use it -- perhaps due to the salutary influence of his childhood love Betsy, a Kansas cornfield beauty. So instead of devastating the country with anthrax, smallpox, whatever, Kurt settled down with Betsy to an idyllic life, the secret terrorist weapon hidden safely in his freezer. Until Sept. 11 comes.
So Kurt sets out on his quest, tracking the masterminds of global terrorism from London to the Sudan to Guantanamo Bay and back to Kansas. Along the way he is beaten to a bloody pulp, repeatedly shot at, tortured and imprisoned. His quest, moreover, entitles him to practice his own share of torture, dismemberment and slaughter. He also gets into a few fairly graphic sex scenes. It's a tough job. "And nobody but you can do it," says Betsy, resigned to losing her husband until the terrorist threat is over.
" 'Sounds like lonely work.'
" 'Very lonely,' I said. 'Very, very lonely.' " There's no point in quoting more of this novel -- there'd be no point in reading it if it weren't for Dickey's stature as a journalist. For the curious: Kurt somehow survives to return to Kansas, where the global terrorists conspire to kidnap his daughter and meet him for a final showdown in an abandoned K Mart. Then, finally, he gets to confront the mastermind behind it all -- a businessman, it turns out -- at Ground Zero.
What are we to make of all this? At best it's a tasteless endeavor, basing an implausible piece of fictional kitsch on Sept. 11. But when the author and his publisher use his expertise as an investigative journalist as part of their marketing strategy, it's impossible not to ask, How accurate is the mirror that Dickey is holding up to our real world? For example, who is talking when Dickey's CIA agent writes that "there's a war inside the government right now . . . [a] war about the future of the war. . . . They want the war to go on, and if this one ends, they want a new one. . . . if we caught Osama himself they'd be [expletive] because that might end support for their war." Is this an insight from Dickey, who writes in The Sleeper's afterword that his fiction owes much to "his reporting about terrorist organizations, guerrilla wars, and government conspiracies since 1980?" Or is this from Dickey the shoot-'em-up pulp writer who has his superhero Army ranger saved by his gun-totin' Kansas wife? Does Dickey really know that this kind of evil corruption is being practiced in Washington, and, if so, why is he putting it in a novel, not on the cover of his magazine -- in fact, why isn't he shouting it from the rooftops? How about when Kurt strongly implies that it was Saddam himself who provided the original mysterious vial of the "plague" that Kurt hid at his wife's restaurant. Would Dickey print this outrageous canard in Newsweek? Of course he wouldn't: The suspicion that Saddam was providing WMDs for international terrorists has been entirely disproved. But why is he printing it here?
Dickey is free to fantasize however he likes. But when a novel so distorts reality, and does so all the while using the author's investigative credentials and inside knowledge as a selling point, then the reader may well resent, as I did, the liberties taken with the Stendhalian representation of truth. Oh well, I guess this is just fiction. Here, the truth doesn't matter. Especially if you've never read Stendhal . . . though writing a novel without having read Stendhal is like writing journalism without having learned to double-source facts.
The recent few years have seen wonderful novels by journalists who have given us insight into the world of politics far beyond what newspapers can -- or should -- try to provide: Martyr's Crossing, Amy Wilentz's novel of Israel and the occupied territories; Harbor, Lorraine Adams's perceptive and beautiful account of Algerian immigrants in America; the entire body of Ward Just's fiction. The intricacy of our post-Sept. 11 world cries out for elucidation and exploration by novelists. But all Americans, and all readers of fiction, should resent this book. The horrendous, unprecedented reality in which we now live demands that art be created about it, not exploitation. * Neil Gordon is literary editor of the Boston Review; chair of the writing program at Eugene Lang College, New School University; and author, most recently, of "The Company You Keep," a novel.