Events overtake a poet-warrior

Special to The Times

During the 1991 Gulf War, while his Marine friends from Officer Candidate School were sneaking into Kuwait on reconnaissance missions, Tom Paine was living a very different life. When Paine's buddies were living by their that-which-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger motto and crawling through the desert sands, the only sands Paine saw were on the beaches of the island of St. John, where he was growing his ponytail, eating vegetarian, and writing "no blood for oil" editorials for the laid-back island newspaper he was editing.

These days, 40-year-old Paine lives equally as far from the fighting in a small Vermont town. He may have lost the ponytail, gone back to eating meat, and taken a very different position on this war than the last one, still some of his artist-friends don't know he was ever a Marine. They likely will when they read his newly published first novel, "The Pearl of Kuwait," which Harcourt Inc.'s distributors unloaded at bookstores last week.

It's the story of two Marines united by their "die a hero" tattoos who go AWOL during the first Iraq conflict in search of adventure beyond volleyball and training exercises. Imagine Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson teaming to play Hardy boys in "The Naked and the Dead." Their aim, as Paine says, is to "kill Saddam Hussein, rescue a princess and bring democracy to Kuwait." He laughs. "It's sort of like what George Bush is doing now, except for the rescuing-a-princess part."

But these guys are hardly your average jarheads. Cody Carmichael is a California surfer boy with a "whatever" attitude and an instinct to follow where a potential adventure may lead. He plays narrator and apostle to Tommy Trang, a samurai warrior of a soldier who was conceived when Viet Cong-fighting Marines raped his mother in her village and left her hanging from a tree. (She survived and made it to Trenton, N.J., where Trang was raised.) Carmichael lives to see "what Trang would do next, because it would make a good story in a boring war," Paine writes. The escapades that transpire are sometimes comic, sometimes brutal.

There's an allegory to be found here if you're looking for one to apply to the current conflict -- two gung-ho Americans playing cowboy, one avenging a parent's past, on the hunt for valuable natural resources (pearls equal oil), trying to liberate a Kuwaiti princess who seems helpless at first but turns out to be as hard-core as they come -- but all this would be accidental metaphor, says Paine. He wrote this book long before Sept. 11 and didn't intend it as a critique of Desert Storm, but rather a straight-ahead adventure tale in the vein of the novels that pack his bookshelves today, like "Huckleberry Finn," "The Man Who Would Be King" and "Don Quixote."

The book was due last year, but he needed the extra time to slice out a couple of hundred pages. The uncanny timing and prescience was an accident -- or "synergy," says Paine, who often says such things. His first book-tour appearance was scheduled for an hour before Bush's deadline for Saddam's surrender.

Oddly, Paine has been in a similar situation before. His first published story ran in the New Yorker the week U.S. troops were sent into Haiti. The story, which you can read in his collection "Scar Vegas," is a progressive political tale about Haitian immigrants. How that one lined up, Paine can't say. He chalks it up to the poetics of the universe. "What can I say? I'm a poet and a 10-week Marine." That ancient duality of character, the role of poet-warrior, is one that Paine thinks is dying off in the world, and is the conflict he feels in himself and his characters.

A divided nature

Paine started off squarely on the poet side. He grew up in Rhode Island, where he wrote poetry at a monastic boarding school. Princeton followed. Paine was seduced by the notion of wandering F. Scott Fitzgerald's campus (surprisingly, for the sort of writer you can imagine meeting over a beer rather than an espresso, he's not a Hemingway man). He told everyone there he was a writer, although instead of writing a creative word, his attention focused on the rugby field. Then one evening over dinner at his eating club, a crew of friends floated the notion of Officer Candidates School. For Paine, it was either that or another summer of lifeguarding. "I was like, why not -- let's do it," he chuckles, sounding like one of his own characters. His war-protester mother was horrified, but Paine was off to Quantico, Va., to jog through the dark at 4 in the morning.

Paine completed the course and returned to Princeton to graduate with a degree in history, refusing his commission as an officer upon graduation. His poet beat out his warrior leanings, and led him away from the Semper Fi path to what he calls a "haphazard narrative of jobs," which included getting fired from an ad agency, working in a psych hospital, sculpting marble in Italy and ending up in Vermont, where he now teaches at Middlebury College in addition to writing.

"Sometimes I regret not taking the officership, but it was just really banging away at me to be a writer," he says. Paine kept up relationships with his fellow dining-club Marines, and their voices and stories formed part of the foundation of his book. For years, he traveled across the country to drink beer with his former OCS gang, pumping them for stories and descriptions to flesh out the book. "My liver took a lot of damage to get these anecdotes down," Paine says. "I'd have to drink so much with these guys that you can see my notes just go right off the edge of the page." Paine switched to using a tape recorder when he realized how much boozing was involved in nailing down details like the precise layout and experience of a land where he had never traveled.

Why Paine wanted to write a novel related to the Gulf War at all is a mystery to him. "I was somehow magnetized by it," he says. "I knew somehow deep inside I was going to write a book about the war."

Instead of the beach-chair pacifism Paine felt during the Gulf War, since Sept. 11 he's been filled with fury. "I was horrified by the loss of life, but I was [angry]," he says. "I like a culture where a woman can wear a bikini and I can tell a joke, and I was really thrown by how deep and important a culture clash can be."

Paine doesn't want to dig publicly into our current situation in the gulf -- he wants readers to respond to the characters he's written without projecting their feelings about his current political sentiments. But what he does reveal follows the tensions he describes in his own persona: a conviction that "ties together deep leftist leanings with the need to regretfully fight," a belief that he says has left deep ideological rifts between this junior-year Marine and his Vermont peacenik friends.

"Hey, it's just like my guy Trang," he says, referring to his protagonist. "He's essentially coming out of the Amnesty International left, but he happens to be carrying an M-16 because he's sick of writing letters. I don't know if I knew it at the time I was writing, but Trang now pretty much summarizes my own psychology now." Poet-warrior synergy, indeed.

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