His new novel is The President's Vampire.
Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My mother-in-law, God bless her, just handed me the most useful reference work I’ve received in a long time. Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places is a smart, well-researched and scathingly funny collection of facts about every country where you’re likely to get your skull perforated by a cheap Chinese knockoff of an AK-47.Visit The President's Vampire website.
As a former reporter, I have a sometimes pathological need for my made-up stories about vampires and secret agents seem accurate. So I bother my friends in the military for details of aircraft and weapons and even harass complete strangers for things like the White House floor plans. (That probably got me on a Secret Service watch list.)
But Pelton’s book is exactly the sort of thing a guy who’s never been near a combat zone needs if he’s going to write international intrigue. There are handy charts and lists: “How to Avoid Land Mines;” body armor rated by bullet-stopping power; places you are most likely to be kidnapped; the naming customs of Zimbabweans (“Stalin Mau Mau,” “Fullydilated.”); weird stuff that should be in every good adventurer’s kit, including day-glo pink bubble gum.
While packed with authentic detail, the book is also a staggering advertisement of just how lucky we are to have survived over 200 years as a democracy. In many places, automatic weapons decide everything from elections to traffic disputes. The recent killings of journalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya are a stark reminder that the real world is still full of terrors that aren’t imaginary. Pelton and his co-authors go out and face them so desk-bound writers like me don’t have to. (If you need another reminder, the contributors list includes two “In Memoriam” entries.)
But there’s a real sense of crazed optimism that pervades the book as well. Much of what Pelton and his co-authors discuss would be crushingly depressing if it weren’t for their ability to find the jokes among the shrapnel. I’ve found myself laughing out loud and wincing at the same time. Human heads on pikes in Algeria, for instance, are called “Jihadsicles.”
In the very first pages, Pelton writes that everyone is going to die, no matter what. “It’s no big deal,” he says. “Death doesn’t really wear a smelly cloak and carry a scythe.” And that may be the most important lesson in the book. So much of our lives now are about minimizing discomfort, inconvenience or surprise. With our earbuds plugged in, we don’t even have to be exposed to random noise when we walk. Then Pelton returns from the brink of grim death with a smile and a good story. In short, he shows us what it’s like to be brave. And by comparison, it doesn’t seem quite so insane to take a few risks of our own.
The Page 69 Test: Blood Oath.