In those days, "Little America" meant stone houses, all alike, with a new Chevy or Ford in the driveway and miles of desert not far away. You could get milkshakes and hamburgers on the third floor of the American Embassy. Current movies were shown every Saturday night. Gin and tonics, Planters peanuts and Luckys, Chesterfields and Camels were readily available. It was, says the narrator of this wonderful novel, "a miniaturized and to some extent bastardized version of a real place far, far away." Terry Hooper was 10 years old in 1958 when he and his parents, after four years in Syria, were sent to a little kingdom named Kurash wedged between eastern Jordan, the rump of Syria and the southwestern corner of Iraq. His father, Mack, the Waspiest of men, was chief of the CIA station in little Hamra, the capital.
"Little America," a remarkably well written and highly original novel that could be called a thriller at the classiest level, is the story of the little boy grown up, now a 52-year-old history professor who wants and needs to find out what his father did there for the CIA. The little kingdom disappeared after the assassination of the 23-year-old king, which happened during his father's tenure. "Gone like a dedicated Politburo leader airbrushed out of a black and white photograph of Stalin and his henchmen. Gone like the great tribes of the Sioux and the Shawnee, the peaceful Pocumtucks, the animistic Mohawks," the author writes, "Eliminated from history."
Hooper is almost scared to find out whether his father set up or took part in a plot to kill the king who for so long inspired an avuncular affection in the older American. His superiors wanted him close to the royal youngster in any case. The son explains himself to us in a sympathetic way.
"I'm interested in what happens inside history, what history hides, what gets left out and what is forgotten," he says. Well, so are we, the readers, and it makes perfect sense when Professor Hooper says the only way he can learn anything about his father is to spy on him.
One of the great assets of "Little America" is the ability of Henry Bromell to go outside a conventional narrative and give us little vignettes of the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, talking to each other in Washington, D.C., and the conversations between the king and the CIA father and between the king and his mother, who holds strong views. Bromell knows the Arab world and writes about it with accurate beauty, so perhaps he was once a child of "Little America" himself. The novel is so gracefully embellished with insights, fine language and intelligence that it becomes exceptional.
It takes place in the time of the Cold War when Eisenhower was president, John Foster Dulles secretary of state and Allen Dulles head of the CIA. "Rheumy Episcopalians, flinty Presbyterians, from Yale and Wall Street held sway, projecting onto the world their own vision of churchly virtue versus the godless unwashed hordes," the author writes. The Dulles brothers worry about Gamal Abdel Nasser when, under his tutelage, Egypt and Syria form the United Arab Republic. In their eyes this was "but a front for some devious Soviet-inspired conspiracy to dominate the Middle East. The little king of Kurash loomed more important in their eyes."
Not the least of its accomplishments, "Little America" reminds us what preposterous and degrading times were the 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union hoped to claw each other to death. Those who disobeyed and distrusted our schemes for the world were often doomed. What Professor Hooper finds out about his own father perfectly illustrates what has so often been hidden in our own history. *