A Model American

January 19, 2008

A Model American, Elsie Burch Donald’s third novel, is a twist on the classic saga of “normal” westerners dumped in weird surroundings. How do they cope? The lead characters are two middle-aged American tourists: Bill Bolton, a rich, successful businessman; and his wife, Marjorie.

With them are their guide, Anne Philips, a young Englishwoman of the spiky left wing intellectual variety, who has that Miss-Jones-but-you’re-beautiful-quality to her; a long-haired hippy pilot, Salty, who crashes their plane into the jungle; and a French  colon Indochinois, Yves Dumont, who is hitching a lift. Their  weird locale is Cambodia in the mid-seventies. It’s the classic gambit of placing your characters in a time and place where the reader knows the fan awaits the shit – Poland in the summer of 1939, a Scottish grouse moor in 1914. The more idyllic the scene, the more the tension builds.

American tourists are banned in Cambodia, but the Model American of the title, Bill Bolton, has used his State Department contacts to get a visa. In return, he makes what he assumes is an empty promise to report on any communist activity he might see. The adventure kicks off with the plane crash. Flying back from Angkor Wat, they run out of gas. It’s been siphoned off. For a moment, the plot moves into Admirable Crichton territory. Wyoming-born Salty, the loser in real life, comes into his own in the wilderness he understands. But Bolton is too good a survivor for that: when he realizes he is losing his place as head lion of the pack, he borrows Salty’s pistol, goes out and kills a deer. Order is restored.

This novel is beautifully paced. The sense of impending doom allows Burch Donald full rein to dwell lovingly on the Cambodian jungle and daily peasant life. Her team is rescued by Cambodian villagers and then trapped in a remote Buddhist idyll for months, until the rice harvest is in and the villagers can spare someone to send for help. Bolton does all the things you’d expect. He tries to bribe his way out. When that fails, he turns his hand to reducing the village’s trade deficit.
 
The storm breaks as the Khmer Rouge arrive before the foreigners can escape and Bolton’s State Department promise comes home. At some points, the writing is clunky, but it’s hard to write inside so many main characters’ heads with such brevity. There is poignancy in the descriptions of what is supposed to be timeless Cambodian rural existence, which we know is about to be destroyed.  As a portrait of American cack-handed, self-obsessed, ostensibly well-intentioned interference, it is a parable for modern times.

Reviewer: Charlotte Eagar is a journalist and co-founder of Reportage Press, which specializes in books about foreign countries. Her novel, The Girl in the Film, will be published in May.



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