Foreign correspondent Jay Morgan isn't yet 40, but he is burned out by war. He lost his wife, a combat photographer, to a bullet in Beirut. By the late 1990s, he is in Kosovo, where Serb paramilitaries are skirmishing with Albanian-ethnic rebels. When the atrocity level gets too high -- and Jay is able to predict which atrocities will make Page One and which won't disturb the American public's slumber -- NATO will intervene with bombs and cruise missiles. Until then, he has risks to run, stories to file.
One of the stories could be big. Jay hears that an Osama bin Laden-like figure has slipped into the mountains of Kosovo with a fanatical Arab cadre, bringing donkeys laden symbolically with dates as well as guns, explosives and copies of the Koran. The arrival of "the dateman," in retrospect, signals the transformation of the war from a local grudge match in the Balkans into part of a worldwide jihad whose ultimate target is the U.S.
"Promised Virgins," Jeffrey Fleishman's debut novel, is set "a few years before those planes sliced into the silver towers and spoiled the skyline of New York," Jay tells us at the outset. He's trying to pump up the story by giving it historical significance -- which would matter more if this were a work of journalism. Fiction operates under different rules; it stands or falls largely on whether we care about the people.
The Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Cairo, Fleishman is an authority on what it's like to be a foreign correspondent in the laptop-and-satellite-phone era. He covered the Kosovo conflict for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the war in Iraq for The Times. When he describes how Jay negotiates Serb roadblocks, drinks endless cups of tea with Muslim elders, sleeps in freezing mud huts and struggles to winnow fact from rumor and propaganda, he's totally convincing.
But for a long time, Jay resists our sympathy. He is universally cynical -- about governments (including his own), pundits who do no reporting, foreign-desk editors who have never traveled abroad, over-the-hill reporters living on their reputations, freelancers destined to get their fool heads blown off, the Serbs, the rebels (whose ineptitude he cites like a jaded theater critic) and even himself. Jay no longer hopes to make the world a better place. Like an existential hero out of Ernest Hemingway or Graham Greene, he goes on reporting because he's good at it and doesn't know what else to do.
Jay needs his young Muslim translator, Alija, to help arrange an interview with the dateman, and Alija needs Jay to escort her into the mountains. She wants to find her kid brother, who may have joined the rebels, and fears seeing his face in every mass grave they unearth. Alija and Jay sleep together but don't have sex -- Alija was gang-raped by the Serb police who torched her village; she may never want to risk intimacy with anyone. As for Jay, it's hard to tell what he feels.
Jay's "family" is a profane lot that includes Brian, a reporter who fly-fishes in whatever hellhole he's sent to cover; Rolo, a CIA agent whose life Jay saved in Sri Lanka and who feeds him crumbs of "intel"; and Megan, a sometime lover who patches up the wounded for Doctors Without Borders. These people come and go, but meet wherever there's a war. Jay's local acquaintances include a rebel chief who used to be a human-rights lawyer, a slippery Kosovar newspaper editor angling for a U.S. fellowship, a Serb ex-sniper and would-be jazz pianist who is losing his mind.
Only toward the end, when Jay's and Alija's quests converge, does Fleishman allow more emotion in, though he displays his stylistic gifts throughout -- crisp, declarative sentences, precise detail, wry dialogue. He unleashes two set pieces -- the rape from Alija's point of view and a suicide bombing from Jay's -- that brilliantly render distorted states of consciousness, though they also make us suspect that Fleishman is indulging in all the literary flourishes he never could get into a newspaper.
Hemingway, the grandfather of the hard-boiled style, used little metaphor. Greene used it sparingly. Fleishman, though writing in their tradition, pushes his language into figurative flight -- straining, as with the historical context, to make this story mean more than the sum of its details. It's as if he realizes, too late, that in fiction even the best details aren't enough.
Harris is a critic and the author of the novel "The Chieu Hoi Saloon."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times