Under a Guise of Fiction, Realities of War
The New York Times’ Anne Goodwin Sides reveals an Ernie Pyle of our generation.
A few days before Easter, people are filing into the prayer room of the Santuario de Chimayo, kneeling before homemade photo collages of uniformed soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan: New Mexico’s dead and wounded. In this early 19th-century adobe shrine hidden in the hills north of Santa Fe, 47-year-old Scott Anderson, a visitor here, stands silently to one side. He has spent 23 years as a war correspondent, a hardboiled title that doesn’t comport with his personal warmth, or the moral sensitivity of his storytelling.
A tourist steps out of the chapel into the fiery New Mexico sunshine and hollers cheerfully across the tree-lined plaza to a companion: “Okey dokey, we’ve done it. Let’s go.” Mr. Anderson bristles and lights a cigarette, taking a deep drag to mollify his irritation. This American compulsion — to tromp through exotic locales like a blundering elephant, extract a few native trinkets and abruptly exit with blithe indifference — is at the heart of Mr. Anderson’s second novel, “Moonlight Hotel,” published this week by Doubleday.
The novel is a portrait of desultory American imperialism in the imaginary Middle Eastern kingdom of Kutar. Set in the early 1980’s, it pits a feckless, womanizing American diplomat, David Richards, against a crass, calculating American military advisor, Colonel Allen Munn.
Munn decides that the tribal infighting that sporadically buffets Kutar’s northern mountain region, hundreds of miles from the coastal capital of Laradan, is coalescing into an anti-democratic threat. The colonel and his military advisors orchestrate an ill-conceived Kutaran army assault on the northern rebels. Munn’s plan backfires. The rebels outwit the Alliance advisors, collect the fleeing army’s abandoned artillery, then begin pounding Laradan to rubble. The Western governments that authored the chaos wash their hands of Kutar, which has no oil or strategic importance.
Throughout, David Richards and a motley group of foreigners holed up in the grand Moonlight Hotel wander Laradan’s streets, trying to ease the epidemic suffering. Standing on the roof of the hotel, looking out at the smoldering city, Richards considers why he’s stayed. “Perhaps there was an element of penance to it. Because all at once it was very important …to be seen as the representative of a moral nation, one that did not walk away from its obligations and friends.” America’s tragically clumsy intervention in fictional Kutar could allude to Southeast Asia, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq.
Scott Anderson looks the part of a Graham Greene spy: hair smoothed back from his high forehead, penetrating blue eyes and a cigarette fixed to one side of his mouth. “People size up that cool, polished exterior and his gravelly, knowing laugh and immediately think he’s a C.I.A. agent, which can be helpful, or very unhelpful, when you’re overseas with him,” said his friend Sebastian Junger, author of the recently published “A Death in Belmont.
In 2000 Mr. Junger went with Mr. Anderson to Bosnia, where they accidentally almost captured one of the world’s most-wanted war criminals. “The idea was to head to the Croatian coast, drink beer and look at girls,” recalled Mr. Junger. “Instead we detoured into some hell hole on the border of Montenegro when we heard that Radovan Karadzichad been spotted there.”
Serb satraps mistook them for an American intelligence hit team and offered up Karadzic in exchange for bribes including visas to the United States. “We said, O.K., let’s see where this goes,” Mr. Junger said. “It was a stupid, dangerous game to be playing,” one that quickly put them in the sights of real C.I.A. officers, who were not amused.
Mr. Anderson began writing novels at 15. After a semester at the University of Florida he dropped out to pick peaches in northern Michigan, work as an office clerk in Boston and tend bar in Washington. He learned to write polished fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, then began educating himself in war zones.
For a writer of his ambition (he’s published four nonfiction books, two novels and has written for The New York Times Magazine) there’s no richer palette than that confluence of diplomats, spies, humanitarian aid workers, amped-up soldiers and the toxic bottom feeders that inhabit battlefields. “You do get addicted to it,” he said of his fascination with deadly places. “Everything’s stripped down to primal questions.”
Growing up in East Asia in the 1960’s during the height of America’s anti-Communist crusade, he was the second son of an officer for the American Agency for International Development, John Anderson, who was posted in South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Though he worked on legitimate agricultural projects, Scott and his brother, the New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson, now suspect their father, who is dead, doubled as a C.I.A. officer.
When the Andersons moved to Indonesia, Scott was 9. They lived in an affluent suburb of Jakarta in a palatial house with five servants, surrounded by squatters. To get to school, Scott had to cross a canal that ran through the middle of the city. He saw dead bodies and animal carcasses float in the same gray water that desperately poor Jakartans collected for drinking water and bathed in.
“I told myself not to look down when we crossed it,” Mr. Anderson said. “I always saw my reaction to that as a sign of weakness. One of the reasons I’ve always gone to awful places as an adult is to prove to myself that I’m not that weak little kid anymore, that I can handle pretty much anything.”
At home in New York, he now lives a fairly genteel life. He and his wife, the documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein, have an apartment off Tompkins Square Park and a farm upstate in Delaware County. They’re also owners (with Mr. Junger) of The Half King, a Chelsea bar that’s blossomed into a profitable literary watering hole.When Mr. Anderson began writing “Moonlight Hotel,” he had in mind Camus’s “Plague,” in which a deadly virus spreads through a coastal town in North Africa. Mr. Anderson’s plague is an indifferent enemy, rebels randomly picking off Laradan’s inhabitants.
The title “Moonlight Hotel” comes from a Beirut hotel where Mr. Anderson stayed with an odd collection of expats for several weeks leading up to the bombing of the United States Marine barracks in 1983.
He was 24 and trying to break in as a stringer for The Associated Press. Desperate to get a story placed, he ventured off toward the no-man’s-land separating the Muslim sector from Christian East Beirut. As he approached a square, he heard gunfire. “I was debating whether to cross the plaza, when I saw this Arab man dressed in a white robe about 20 feet away,” he said. “Then I heard a shot. The man stopped and started licking his lips, biting them like he was crazy. He began walking in tight circles. I noticed a red stain on his chest. He sat down on the ground hard, pulling at the red spot. Then he fell over and I knew he was dead. It was the first person I saw die.”
It didn’t become a news-agency story, but the scene appears in “Moonlight Hotel,” only the Arab has been fictionalized as a British diplomat. “It’s very difficult to integrate those experiences into a, quote, ‘normal’ life,” Mr. Anderson said. “I think that’s why I write about the most disturbing things under the cover of fiction. It’s a way to process what I’ve seen or felt that I don’t know how else to handle.”