HACKS By Christopher S. Wren Simon and Schuster. 287 pp. $23
"Anybody here," bellowed a Fleet Street reporter in a Congolese refugee camp, "been raped and speaks English?" This heartless inquiry was a sort of professional motto when I worked as the "fireman" at the London Daily Express, itself a loose model in early days for the Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh's classic "Scoop." (A "fireman" in hack parlance is a conflagration-situation person, ready at any notice to leave the bar and issue dispatches from another "strife-torn" dateline -- and another bar.) And a "hack" is the Fleet Street term for the noble calling of journalist, especially that of overseas reporter. Over the past decade it has become internationalized, and counts as one of many vernacular terms adopted in self-defense by those at whom it was originally aimed. (Other examples include "Tory," "suffragette," "impressionist" and, of course, "muckraker.")
Christopher Wren, a New York Times reporter with a distinguished track record as both fireman and resident bureau chief in a dozen hot spots, has picked up both the argot and the ethos for this novel. Not only do the hacks use unprintable British slang but they also resort to antique English expletives like "crumbs." Can this author really be as Anglophile as his baptismal parents presumably were? The problem for all such authors is of course the aforementioned Waugh, whose work is the one to beat and whose style is infectious while being maddeningly impossible to emulate.
In every hellhole of the globe there is at least one hotel with a bar, and it is from this "mahogany ridge" that many telling dispatches are filed. The Commodore Hotel in Beirut, the Europa in Belfast, the Sarajevo Holiday Inn -- these are among the famous watering holes of hackery. In this instance, the Cafe Peri-Peri, in a villainous hotel in what looks and feels suspiciously like Angola, is the literary HQ. Here is the stage on which reporters meet to fiddle their expenses, exploit the local exchange rate, bitch about one another and pick up hot tips from the sort of police informers and other riffraff who normally infest such places. The hardships of such postings include, in no special order, a shortage of eligible partners, the attrition caused by communications breakdowns, the indifference of the editors at home to the story at hand and the intense interest in it displayed by one's immediate competitors. ("Daily Mail man shot," read a cable once received by an Express hack. "Why you unshot?" These days fax machines have made cables redundant, but foreign editors are no less heartless than of yore.) Another professional deformation, and one well observed by Wren, is the easy resort to cliche. "The body of a child lies like a broken doll in the street," a colleague of mine used to mutter semi-automatically whenever "a shot rang out." In this narrative, every dispatch from the fictional Equatoria features its renowned "tamarind trees," through which "bullets whip" and from behind which "smoke rises." The charade is terminated by a cable from the fact-checkers at home, who have determined that tamarind trees don't grow in Equatoria.
Wren commits occasional lapses. The American ambassador is depicted as having purchased his post by means of a large campaign contribution, whereas it's never been known for a campaign contributor to ask for a posting to Angola. And, though sincere Scandinavian social reformers do indeed turn up in such places speaking solemnly of solidarity, they do not sound quite as mad or wicked as Wren paints them. Where he excels is in depicting those moments that bring it all back -- the sensation of waiting at a sweltering roadblock while a resentful corporal reads your passport upside down, or the hardly less queasy feeling that comes over you when the accounting department works out the legal as opposed to the black-market value of the local currency.
Romance in these conditions is both necessary and impossible, and Wren makes his central character -- named T.K. in honor of another journalistic expression meaning "more to come" -- experience the contradiction to the full. There are only a certain number of seats in any plane, or any Jeep going to the front, and only a certain number of people will ever get the tip-off about the jungle press conference. Hacks are supposed to be ruthless about cheating and beating one another, as William Boot in his innocence soon discovered. But even now and then a tiny spark of human decency will kindle, to the general disgust. What happens then is something that I cannot give away. The obverse of the cult of toughness and cynicism is of course a certain hopeless sentimentality, and in catching this, too, Christopher Wren has added to our knowledge of the world's third-oldest profession, which has so much in common with the first two. The reviewer writes the Fin de Siecle column for Vanity Fair and the Minority Report column for The Nation.