Henry Bromell's 2001 novel, Little America, should have been a best seller -- so thinks Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley -- and provided answers to some of our big questions (like, for instance, "Why do they hate us?").
After the World Trade Center attacks, when George W. Bush asked (rhetorically,
mind you, not really caring), HneyI thought I knew, having just read a novel by
my friend Henry Bromell called Little
Published in the spring of 2001, it concerns the attempts of an historian,
Terry Hooper, to decipher the events of a particular year-1958-in a particular
Middle East nationette-Kurash (imagined by Bromell as a hypothetical representation
of other nations in the region). It is the late '90s, and Terry, now fifty, is
perturbed in his conscience about what he suspects his father, Mack Hooper, has
done, and, in a larger sense, what he suspects his country has done. Bromell
weaves together Terry's investigation and the events he discovers in an
extremely graceful but suspenseful narrative. I wasn't the only reader
impressed by the package-Joan Didion called it "the best and smartest novel
I've read in a long time."
The gist of Terry's story is betrayal. In 1958, Mack Hooper is sent out by
Allan and John Foster Dulles to control and manipulate the new young king of
Kurash, the grandson of the king originally imposed upon the Kurashians by the
British, and propped up there for several decades. The British are now on their
way out, and the Americans plan to take over, using the king and his country to
foil the designs of the Soviets and the Egyptians (Nasser and his pan-Arab
League present the principal danger to American designs). Bromell is explicit
in his portrayal of American fears. In the late fifties, the Soviets are riding
a tide of success, and seem to be expanding their influence all over the world.
The Americans fear they are in a losing battle with the ideology of Communism,
and are willing to do just about anything to stem that tide.
The young king's fatal flaw, from the point of view of geopolitics, is that he
isn't important enough to stand in the way of the Dulles brothers' schemes.
Toward the end of the novel, Bromell shows that, when they finally do discuss
him, the Dulleses spend only ten minutes on him before moving on to more
important matters. But what Bromell does, and what the novel itself is designed
to do, is to show that to the Kurashians, to the king himself, to ten-year-old
Terry, and to the CIA operatives in the Kurash office, what goes on in Kurash
is all important, important enough to shape many lives and much Middle Eastern
history. Because the Dulles boys think the way they do, and because the Kurashians
think the way they do, profound resentments are inevitable and important. The
answer to the question "Why do they hate us?" in my reading of Little America was a nuanced and tragic
one. I of course thought Bromell's book should be, could be, and would be a
best seller. Silly me.
were signs that the book was being taken seriously in certain places. Bromell
heard through the grapevine that Richard Helms was reading it. A friend of mine
with lots of former-spy friends called one of them and said, "I've just been
reading about your life." She sent the book to her friend, who subsequently
ordered fifty copies. But that was that. Just when the book should have hit the
best-seller list and provided answers to some of our big questions, it died.
been thinking about Little America
for almost eight years, so I went back and reread it. I was not disappointed.
Bromell uses the resources of the Novel (character, plot, narrative technique,
dialogue) in a beautifully sophisticated way to both inform the reader and move
her. But Little America is more than
a novel. Bromell's childhood was spent not in Kurash but in Iran. I know this
because he told me long ago, when we were friends in our twenties. His sense of
what we as a nation did there, and how we screwed up there, is informed and
evenhanded. He has a strong empathy with every character and a terrific take on
the interlocking relationships they have that cross all sorts of lines and
boundaries. Americans are frequently guilty, one generation after another, of
not knowing how current events got to be what they are. Were it not so obscure, Little America could correct that flaw
with regard to the Middle East.
Jane Smiley is the author of many novels, including
A Thousand Acres, Horse Heaven, and Ten Days in the Hills, as well as several works of nonfiction, most
notably Thirteen Ways of Looking at the
Novel, an anatomy and history of the novel as a form. She lives in
POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 8th 2010 | Add a comment