The Short Version: Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged English reporter in Vietnam, meets Alden Pyle, an idealistic young American. While Fowler navigates the pre-America Vietnam War, Pyle becomes something of a romantic rival and a psychological opposite. Pyle’s simple – and very American – view of the world leads to horror and tragedy and Fowler is forced to abandon his disengagement and take a stand.
The Review: I’ve never read any Graham Greene before. My closest experience is from the second season finale of The West Wing when Bartlet is ranting at God and quotes “you cannot conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God” – that’s literally it. Oh, that and there was a plot point in… Rubicon? that vaguely seemed to involve Our Man in Havana. The summer appearance of The Biblioracle set me straight, however, and as the hostess at Momofuku this afternoon said to me when she spotted what I was reading, The Quiet American is the perfect introduction to Greene.
I have to admit that, to some extent, I knew whatever I read ‘next’ after The Alexandria Quartet would be… disappointing. Or at least that I wouldn’t be ale to engage in the book, whatever it may’ve been, in anything approaching a meaningful way – comparatively, anyway. I almost wish I’d had the time to read something a bit frothier – something with swords, perhaps – before coming back to a ‘serious’ novel… but it wasn’t to be.
There are strange and uncomfortable parallels between the Vietnam of this novel and The Middle East of today/the last twenty years. I can see why this book pissed off so many Americans – and why it was the reason Greene was on government watch lists until the end of his life. I didn’t realize this at first, but this novel takes place long before America actually stepped into the Vietnam War. Pyle’s presence, therefore, is a little strange. I mean, there are Americans all over the novel – but I understand how ‘strange’ it must’ve been because America didn’t have a stake in the war at that point. And by God is Pyle a wonderfully drawn example of an ugly American. He is naive, straight-laced, idealistic to the point of fanaticism, and has read one really great idea in his life that precludes him from understanding anything else. It’s actually unsettling to me to see a character that captures all of the really shitty things about most Americans but manages to stay away from being a caricature. Pyle feels like a real person and I was made all the more uncomfortable because of it.
This is not to say that Fowler is a good guy or anything. His attempt to stick to an ideal is just as mockable – it’s just that his attempt is more worldly-wise, if still incredibly naive. Fowler wants to remain apart – he doesn’t not want to be engagé but rather just to be able to report. And find some simulacra of happiness with Phuong, his Viet lover. Of course, you can’t be in a warzone and stay disengaged. The war will involve you in one way or another. And it does, when Fowler finds himself in the middle of a bombing that was facilitated by Pyle (in an act of absolute bone-headed American “I’m going to commit 100% to this bone-headed idea because it makes sense when I ignore everything else about how this isn’t a good idea/isn’t going to work”). Suddenly, Fowler realizes he has to make a stand and do something.
The thing is… I never really bought this change. Fowler seemed too weary and too — sad isn’t the right word but it’s closest. He’s so cynical in a tired way that I never really bought his decision to suddenly engage by passing on word of Pyle’s rogue agenda. He just seems numb – which may be the point, upon further reflection – and as a result, I don’t entirely buy his decision to suddenly up and go to these people who are able to have Pyle killed. There was just something missing here – a step in the process. It all felt too easy and too tidy, especially for a book that (up to that point) had been about how untidy things are in a war and how no one really manages to escape unchanged.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The picture of Americans in Vietnam before America actually joined the war is striking – especially because we clearly haven’t learned a damn thing in the ensuing 60ish years. Greene’s writing is interesting – relatively simple (although what isn’t simple after Durrell) but with some moments of crystalline beauty. I’d be interested to read more of Greene in the same way that I’d like to read some more Hemingway: there’s something almost antiquated about the simplicity of the writing but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Special thanks, as always, to John Warner at The Morning News for his spot-on Bibliorac-ular recommendation. It’s a delight to force myself to step off of my planned reading path and read something I might never’ve picked up.