Like, hey, dude, who knew U.S. Marines straight out of boot camp could have so much fun and freedom while representing their country in, like, a full-out war? California surfer-stoner Cody Carmichael and Private Tommy Trang, the main players in Tom Paine's first novel, The Pearl of Kuwait, sure do. From the minute "Cow-boy" Cody hooks up with Trang and his insatiable patriotic energy at boot camp before the Gulf War, it's, like, one wagwit adventure after another. There's no stopping these two jarheads, and the Marine Corps doesn't seem to mind that they're acting nothing like Marines -- diving for pearls in the Persian Gulf, taking requisition Humvees out for afternoon spins, shooting camels or traversing the desert in Iraqi uniforms one day, Arabian robes the next.
Tom Paine is a Charlotte resident and Middlebury prof whose award-winning short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and Playboy, and whose book of short stories, Scar Vegas, won accolades two years ago. The Pearl of Kuwait is told from the point of view of Cody -- an acnified youth who joins up with fake papers and dreams about shooting bad guys and coming home a hero to throngs of girls in tight sweaters and lipsticked smiles who are eager to fondle his newly acquired military medals. But Cody is never the same droopy-lidded pothead once he meets Trang. The child of a Sai-gon prostitute raped by a gang of U.S. Marines, Trang is indisputably "hungry for trigger time so he [can] perform some heroics."
Their first madcap adventure takes off like a horse race at the starting gun. Pow! The gate is open, and it's all we can do to keep up from scene to scene. Some of these are linked to the story; others are just there, like icing, for sheer sugary amusement. Because, like, it's a gas writing about zany characters doing zany things on the not-so-zany desert sands of the Middle East during wartime.
The story begins when Trang decides he should go diving for some pearls. Why not? They're just hanging out, playing volleyball and waiting for the war to start. He's a wild-and-crazy guy, and a nice, fat, lustrous pearl would sure wow the girls back home. Suited up, they go pearl diving. But what they find instead is a hottie Kuwaiti princess trying to off herself.
From there, Pearl is all about Trang wanting to save and marry the princess, who soon announces that Allah has sent Trang to rescue her from an ugly fate. If that's not enough, he's determined to "kick some serious Iraqi ass" -- meaning put that M16 to good use against Saddam and, in so doing, become a hero, dodge a court martial for being AWOL, and "bring American-style freedom to the locals."
Paine seems to know his Desert Storm history, and he gets a charge out of creating these nutty young Marines and his cast of secondary characters -- from Ali, the Bangladeshi camel-racing-jockey-slave-boy-turned-unofficial-U.S.-Marine, to Mahdi, the Messiah-to-be with a mole. And clearly, Pearl is all pell-mell, tongue-in-cheek spoof. But the reader can sometimes find it hard to go with the fictional flow and just enjoy the maelstrom of desert adventure because, well, it's just too much. Everyone is too cool, the pieces fit together a bit too easily. When Paine does stop for a moment and offer some heartfelt insight, it seems disingenuous, soapboxing at its most obvious. To make the satire cutting and effective, it seems, we need a darker dark side. Jonathan Swift would have been the first to point this out.
"That girl was just foaming with good ideas during this period," Cody says of Princess Lulu toward the end of the book when she, along with Cody, Trang and a few others, is "stoking" up some democracy in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. "It made me wonder how many other girls in Arabia were just like shut down totally in terms of their creative talents and in need of like liberation by a posse of crazy American Marines."
If Paine's novel were made into a Hollywood flick -- and that thought surely crossed the author's mind -- Trang would have to be played by Keanu Reeves. He'd be all sweet and gullible, with wide eyes and a goofy half-grin, and he'd say things like, "Yo, man, I mean it, 'cuz I'm all about freedom and love and helping people." The targeted young, male audiences would be pumped by all the talk of "American chicks and their big tits," the size of some of a guy's "personal equipment," pearls up the you-know-where for safekeeping and the power of a "Die a Hero" tattoo.
Pearl would be more than just a big old howl if the sobering moments of war and death, loss and tragedy were given real gravity. No more than one sentence is offered when the guys pass a pile of charred Iraqi soldiers. The violent deaths of Euclid Krebes, one of their USMC buddies, and Lulu's friend Leila are acknowledged, but only in passing. It's always, like, time to get back to the crazy-ass adventure.
"And I thought how fine Leila looked [in my dream] in this red, white, and blue bikini," Cody ponders, "and how freedom is all about a chick in a red, white, and blue bikini free to ride the waves, and the right to party on the beach by a fire after sunset with said chick, and even the right to lick the salt off her soft cheek if you are so lucky. And as Leila was stone dead from bullet holes, I snapped out of this daydream, and was suddenly pretty wrecked about Leila in the trunk, but at the same time stoked I was a follower of Tommy Trang, who was -- in his own crazed way -- 'fighting for our right to party,' so to speak."
To Paine's credit, his heroes and heroines rarely step out of character, or their particular vernacular, for that matter. But at times we wish to heaven they would.
Clearly, Paine has a good imagination and can weave a colorful story. But once the carpet of the final adventure is rolled up -- and yes, Saddam himself is in it -- one wonders why he felt the need to write this book. For fun, yes. For political bandstanding, maybe. For memorable characters with genuine hearts and souls, probably not.
But semper fi, man, everything's cool.