THE WARLORD'S SON

By Dan Fesperman

Knopf. 320 pp. $23

Dan Fesperman covered the war in Afghanistan for the Baltimore Sun, and out of that experience he has brought forth this terrific novel of intrigue, duplicity and death in the shadow of the Khyber Pass. "The Warlord's Son" centers on two men, an American and a Pakistani. Stan Kelly, known as Skelly, is 53 and a reporter for a Midwestern newspaper. He was once a celebrated foreign correspondent, but as he grew older and budgets grew tighter he was called home to cover Wal-Mart openings in suburban shopping malls. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks, and suddenly his skills were in demand again. ("Help us understand them," his editors pleaded. "Why do they hate us?") Barely a month after the attacks, Skelly is in Pakistan, trying to cross into Afghanistan, where the U.S. bombing of the Taliban has begun, and where he hopes to find the big story that can revive his career.

He hires 27-year-old Najeeb Azam, the warlord's son of the title, as his translator, guide and "fixer." As a boy, Najeeb had "roamed a wonderland of extremes, a rural princeling at play among bearded, turbaned men with rifles slung on their backs, all of whom owed their allegiance to his father." But the boy was too sensitive to suit his father; he would rather sketch birds than shoot them. He was exiled to college in the United States, where he learned to love what he calls America's holy trinity -- supermarkets, libraries and women. After a bitter break with his father, he settled in Peshawar, a squalid town near the border, where he squeezes out a living as a journalist and translator. His life is complicated by his love for Daliya, a college student banished by her parents after she rejected an arranged marriage. Sent to Peshawar to work at a menial job and repent of her sins, she instead begins an affair with Najeeb, a new level of sin that puts them both in danger from militant fundamentalist Muslims.

In his leisurely, beautifully written opening chapters, Fesperman introduces the two men, the Pakistani "disowned son, enthusiastic fornicator, occasional imbiber of forbidden beverage," and the American, "a burnout, saddle sore from too many long rides with each of the Four Horsemen." Later, the novel will turn to adventure and violence, but the author first grounds his story solidly in character and place.

His opening lines suggest the tone: "The sun does not rise in Peshawar. It seeps -- an egg-white smear that brightens the eastern horizon behind a veil of smoke, exhaust and dust. The smoke rises from burning wood, cow patties and old tires, meager flames of commerce for kebab shops and bakers, metalsmiths and brick kilns. The worst of the exhaust sputters from buzzing blue swarms of motor rickshaws, three-wheeled terrors that careen between horse carts and overloaded buses."

Skelly and Najeeb set out for Afghanistan with a man who claims ties to a warlord but who may just want publicity -- or want to kill them. But Skelly cannot resist the lure of the Big Story, particularly after his benefactor hints that they may meet up with Osama bin Laden himself.

Many, many adventures ensue. The two are caught between rival warlords and confront the Taliban as well. They survive firefights and see men hanged. Fleeing for their lives, they encounter a shadowy American oil company operative and a CIA agent who may or may not wish them well. Throughout, Skelly scribbles furtively and clings to his notebook like a crucifix. At one point, when the travelers encounter armed sentries at a mountain pass, Fesperman notes that "the moment was finely balanced." The same could be said of his characterizations. Neither Skelly nor Najeeb is entirely a hero or, if foolhardy, entirely a fool; each man has elements of both conditions. Soon the question is not, will Skelly get his story, but, will Skelly and Najeeb get out of this hellhole alive? Are they stumbling toward success or tragedy? Perhaps they are doomed "like every other foreigner who had made a name in these hills -- spies and soldiers and scouts, toiling for the greater glory of distant monarchs and ministers -- all had traipsed naively into the dust."

"The Warlord's Son" offers a brilliant picture of what might be called the journalistic condition -- specifically, the joys, absurdities and horrors of the foreign correspondent's life -- and it will teach you more than you ever expected to know about tribesmen for whom violence is a given and betrayal is an art. Near the end, I thought Fesperman had gone too far in his portrayal of the cruelty and duplicity of the warlords, but in time he shows that the interchangeable CIA and corporate operatives who can call in attack helicopters are far more lethal than warriors who ride on horseback and brandish Kalashnikovs. If the novel has a weakness, it concerns Najeeb's girlfriend. For much of the novel, Fesperman uses her to dramatize the plight of women in that part of the world; then, like some plucky Shakespearean heroine, she dresses like a boy and invades forbidden territory to save her man. Still, by then the novel was sufficiently nerve-racking that I welcomed a touch of romance.

Fesperman is that rare journalist who is also a gifted novelist. His coverage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia inspired his first two novels, "Lie in the Dark," which won Britain's John Creasey Memorial Dagger, and "The Small Boat of Great Sorrows," which won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger.

"The Warlord's Son" deserves the attention of anyone who is open to first-rate fiction about war, journalism and the dark, dangerous worlds called Pakistan and Afghanistan.