Scott Anderson stunned me. I decided to review his new novel, Moonlight Hotel, because of a venerable journalistic history of writing great war novels. And because Anderson is co-owner of the Half King, an establishment I heartily admire and endorse. The book was touted as a satire, a biting and witty look at the games of diplomacy and the spoils of war.
And true to the book jacket blurbs, Moonlight Hotel started out with a wry and acerbic tone, as Anderson set up our fictitious Arab kingdom of Kutar, with the cosmopolitan diplomatic social circle nestled pleasantly in the capital, Laradan. He blithely introduces David Richards as the development attaché to the American Embassy, a 34-year-old man whose affairs with various other expats seem to be the center of his concern. Only when the northern provinces of Kutar start to fall worringly into the hands of rebel tribesman do we see Richards slip out of his gentle lethargy and into the role he was assigned. But as the mayhem tumbles southward into Laradan, Richards slips into much more than his own role – along with the unlikely ally of Nigel Mayhew (a British diplomat Anderson wants us very much to dislike in our blithe beginnings), he becomes a sane man left standing in chaos.
I can tell you exactly when the book flip-flopped with a sickening thud from acerbic and distant to horrifyingly close. About halfway through, Anderson breaks away from the scene to describe, in gritty detail, what happens on an urban street when a shell explodes. In co-centric rings from the site of explosion, Anderson picks his way through the rubble, pointing it all out to us with preternatural calm. Anderson – for our narrator has briefly slipped away in these two pages – becomes the definition of the word “shell-shocked”. It was right here that I realized the truth behind this book. Anderson has been there. He has lured me in with his nonchalant diplomat in his fictional country only to stand me in the center of death and chaos and makes it unavoidable for me to realize that he has been there.
It makes the book completely worth it, completely gripping, and absolutely heart-stopping. It’s no worthy prize to be able to say you’ve seen war and thus can write about it convincingly, but it’s a prize to Anderson – and other war journalists – nonetheless. Richards and the band of foreigners left in Laradan when all hell breaks loose become our mother, our sister, our crazy friends and our sons. Richards and Mayhew are heroes, and they are terrified to be so. I cannot give away a thing that follows our rubble-strewn first look past the tidy neatness of satire into the bowels of hell, so I won’t. But I want to – it’s the nature of Anderson’s beast that you cannot tear these people from your eyes, and their view from the Moonlight Hotel becomes yours just as fiercely as the views of any real war-zone become internalized and remembered with horror.
But of course, satire and wit prevail throughout the novel because they are the coping mechanisms. General Munn’s ridiculous language – “sub-optimal” when the Allies are losing is one example – is as well-wrought as Orwell or Paine. Perhaps the book jacket is right; perhaps Anderson has written about the hilarious mess that is the U.S. friendships abroad, satirizing the deathly game of chess that the West plays with the East.
But no keen critical commentary could take away the memory of Anderson’s rubble, the destroyed city, the absurdity of war. If the beginning and the end of Moonlight Hotel are swathed in satire, it’s only bandaging for the bleeding, broken middle – which is too honest to be anything else.