Halfway through this book, the veil lifted, and I thought: ‘I see! I see what he’s trying to do!’ Pickering gets his characters, and moves them along, and then, after 150 pages, he manages to convey a really powerful sensation of something; you might call it amorality, or nihilism, or the sense of the pointlessness of it all. For the first 12 chapters, you are walking uphill, and then you get the view. For the hero, there is horror, and a Graham Greene-like sense of things not being what they seem.
Before this moment, it’s a strange set up. I suppose it’s meant to be. Malone, our Greene-ish hero, is an American airman in his late twenties. He’s in Afghanistan, but not with the military — he flies supplies around. He’s married, but his heart’s not in it; his wife keeps trying for a baby, but he never gets her pregnant. His name, Malone, is a bit of a giveaway. At one point, we find out that his parents weren’t very nice, and that he was suicidal. He’s very world-weary. His wife, Kim, is a Christian doctor. They’re only together because she met him just as he was about to throw himself off a cliff.
That’s not the strange bit, though. We first see Malone in a bar, where he meets a beautiful Pakistani woman, dressed up as Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. This is Fatima, and she has a pet goose, which she drugs with laudanum to calm it. She keeps it on a lead, like a dog, and calls it Toto. Malone falls for this lady immediately, even though, for the reader, alarm bells are ringing. She says she wants to make a video along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, and Malone agrees to take her off in his plane. That’s the strange bit.
He really can’t like his wife at all, you think. Meanwhile, she’s off somewhere dangerous to do her medical work. So they’re both going to have adventures. Malone sticks with Fatima, who says she’s being chased by the Taleban. Kim gets captured. Malone keeps trying to get off with Fatima; she’s always telling him to wait. You wonder who’s going to get shot or tortured, who’s going to have sex, what might happen when Malone gets home, if he ever does. And is the goose in any way symbolic?
Then the thing happens. There’s an American attack. You’re worrying about the Taleban, and suddenly the Americans swoop down, and you find yourself … not exactly on the Taleban side, not quite that, but there’s a very well-engineered moment of nihilistic confusion. At first, you want Malone to be airlifted to safety with the Yanks. But Fatima’s shooting at them! And they are killing civilians! At this point, you might put down your book and have a bit of a think.
And Kim, too, is in peril of a similar kind. Having been captured, she bonds with the enemy, gives somebody life-saving medical treatment — and, of course, there’s some meaningful sex. There’s lots of violence, and factional fighting, and confusion, and a long trek through the mountains. The theme of The Wizard of Oz is never very far away, either. And when I said that the veil lifts about halfway through, that’s not the only time it lifts. The good guys are just as bad as the bad guys, Pickering seems to be telling us. But the bad guys know stuff the good guys will never know; over there, they know all the best tricks.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 6 issues delivered for just £6, with full web and app access. Join us.