Awfully clever of David Shafer to title his debut novel about international information espionage Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; more than once I found myself exclaiming, “WTF?” Not in an exasperated, obscene way, but more in a “okay, what just happened here?” way. That’s the best way to be uttering an excuse for an expletive, right?
Just to be clear – the “huh?” factor in this book is not due to obscurity or convolution. It is due to surprising twists – or non-twists – that have come to be expected in stories full of international power influence and its accompanying dirty rotten scoundrel conspiracies. And that David Schafer is unafraid to leave ambiguities in his plotlines – huge ones, even. As in, who is “right” and who can be trusted.
The storyline is this: three losers (well, okay so Leila isn’t really a “loser” but she’s not exactly as far up on the success ladder as she was anticipating she would be at this point in her life) get swept up – in three very different ways – into a an effort by an international cabal of big business moguls to privatize the storage of all digital information (in ways both covert and “it’s good for you!” PR obvious). This effort is opposed by a deeply clandestine grass roots, supposedly do-gooder organization known as “Dear Diary”.
Leila is a young American-Iranian worker for a non-profit health organization (known as “Helping Hands” – gotta love the names of organizations in this book!) currently trying to recruit young women in Myanmar for nursing scholarships. While there, she inadvertently sees something she shouldn’t – but doesn’t realize the scope of what she’s seen or how dangerous it is when she digs into an explanation of what it is she saw. On the way back to the States, she is swooped up by “agents” of Dear Diary (who she herself contacted from a rather dubious contact that just happened to materialize when sudden upsetting events in her life didn’t add up). For her, wonders (both head-shaking and jaw dropping) never ceased.
Mark Deveraux is a booze addled druggie who happened to write a legitimately insightful self-help essay that became a thoroughly crappy self-help book which nevertheless became wildly popular, fodder for talk shows and corporate seminars. Mark’s stock skyrocketed and he’s flying pretty high, but he knows he’s a fraud; except for the advice based on the essay, the rest of his bestselling book is platitude, double-speak, completely made up or lifted from someone else’s work. For some reason that is completely lost on him (other than he’s a quick thinker and knows how to tell people what they want to hear) he has caught the attention of “squillionaire” James Straw, CEO and owner of SineCo, a huge – Google huge – media storage company intent at world domination (along with his mega-billionaire business cohorts). Straw sees Mark as his personal guru, and since Mark is basically a fraud, stakes this high keep him on his toes – and steeped in whatever alcohol is close at hand.
Leo Crane is a 30-something out-and-out addict, prone to abstract thinking and sudden bouts of philosophy and rhetoric that freely moves between genius and the paranoid ravings of a lunatic. Somewhat free to live off a modest trust fund, he nevertheless seems unable to hold a job, or friendships, or possibly sanity. After a family intervention, he finds himself at the Quivering Pines treatment center, where he learns valuable life lessons from the other inmates…. er, patients – lessons that aren’t exactly sanctioned by Quivering Pines psychiatric personnel. When he was younger, Leo was best friends with Mark Deveraux, and in fact, much of the most well received parts of Mark’s bestselling book actually came from Leo – which is probably why Mark no longer takes Leo’s calls. Until now, that is.
So these three end up crossing paths, but not in the conventional “buddy movie” sense – they aren’t drawn together by chance or design and then set off to save the day as a weird and wacky trio. Nope, this book eschews expected formula. We thankfully don’t get a novel full of chapters with alternating main character points of view; sometimes chapters are seen from the eyes of a third party, or follow one character for a stretch of time. The stories of our trio progress somewhat in parallel to each other rather than constantly intertwining. I didn’t realize how satisfying it was to read something that didn’t follow the set multi-cast thriller formula (even a successful-for-a-reason formula) until I read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. And yet, the narrative doesn’t stray so far away from the formula so as to make it oblique.
And the writing is snappy, witty, contemporary. All three main characters – naive Leila, loopy Leo and poseur Mark – talk exactly as you would expect them to, sans flowery extemporizing, and sometimes – especially with Leo – with a bit of, well, “wft”? But beautifully realized (“In the weeks that followed, his thoughts became as dark and jangled as wire hangers at the back of the closet.”)
In this book, you may be pretty sure who the bad guys are, but may not be totally convinced that the good guys really wear white hats. When characters make assumptions based on accepted tropes, they often are totally wrong (are the guys following you friends or foe? can you believe what you’re being told? is helping actually hindering? do the ends actually justify the means?). Sleight of hand is not just a skill that Mark displays when trying to pick up girls – it exists at many levels in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – but not as magic; instead as self-avowed illusion that, like many “magic” tricks, remain unexplained after the final reveal occurs. That is, assuming a final reveal does occur. In this entertaining, enjoyable book, a reveal is not always a given – but that, too, is not a bad thing. A fun, fun read, even with the ending living up to the title – very apropos, actually.