Underground Reading: The Man Who Played Thief by Don Smith
Small Press Expo (Saturday, 30 June)

Underground Reading: Dubai by Robin Moore

DubaiRobin Moore's Dubai (1976) begins with damp squib: US Army Colonel Fitz Lodd, intelligence attache assigned to the American Embassy in Iran, goofs with a reporter. Irritated by the pushy journalist, Fitz remarks that the 'Arab countries never get fair coverage in the American media'.

His comments are (kind of, but not really) taken out of context and promptly printed in every major newspaper. The Zionist Illuminati back in the US freak out and, before long, Fitz is out of a job. 

With every cloud, however, there is a silver lining. Through the Persian Gulf, Fitz is now a hero - the man who stood up to the American-Jewish media conspiracy. After being politely escorted out of Tehran, Fitz establishes himself in the budding state of Dubai, basking in the patronage of its ambitious Sheikh Rashid. Fitz also finds himself a popular man with the other expatriates and adventurers, all flocking to the region in search of oil money.

Soon, the former military man is knee-deep in ridiculous schemes. Over the course of Dubai, Fitz becomes part owner of a night club, a CIA-assisted blackmailer, a gold smuggler and/or pirate, an arms-dealer, an anti-Communist counter-revolutionary, a budding oil magnate and, perhaps most hilariously of all, a salesman for a new media syndicate - trying to raise money to purchase Life magazine. Frankly, he's lucky to have the time to shag his beautiful girlfriend. (And - gasp - he almost doesn't. In the book's only attempt at actual character growth, Fitz kind of falls in love, kind of loses the girl, very much shags someone else and then eventually winds up back with the first girl. Kind of hooray.)

Fitz is, undeniably, a bastard. The anti-Semitism is a good place to start. Mr. Moore uses the text to protest, perhaps too much, that Fitz is an alright guy. Look! He's having sex with a Jewish girl, clearly he's not anti-Semitic!  In the book's initial set-up, there are two possibilities for what happened, both rancorous. In one, Fitz is being anti-Semitic with his claims of a Zionist media conspiracy. Alternatively, Fitz isn't making the claim and his quote is taken out context. In which case, the text is anti-Semitic, as Fitz has done nothing wrong, but the book's Zionist conspiracy  gets Fitz fired and blacklisted anyway. Either the character's a dick or the author is. You make the call.

Nor does Fitz become any more charming over the course of his adventures. Fitz lives carefully within the letter of (local) law, but never in the spirit of it. While teaching his buccanneering friends to smuggle gold, he's happy to gun down Indian customs vessels - but only in international borders. Similarly, Fitz takes up gun-running for the cause, buying American weapons and selling them illegally – but only to his own hand-picked groups. 

Still, Fitz fits. The world of Dubai is a despicable one, where all institutions are corrupt: every government, every military; each and every reporter, Sheikh, lawyer, spy and waitress. Fitz never even suffers a momentary pang of conscience about going from loyal officer to duplicitous mercenary; he's more upset about abandoning his pretty secretary than alienating his country of birth.

Were Mr. Moore less dedicated to trivial info-dumping, the ceaseless skulduggery and conflicting ambitions could have made the world of Dubai into an intriguing setting. The author clearly identifies the region's soaring, international future, but rather than work with an epic tapestry, Mr. Moore over-commits to the base mundanities of the present. From line-by-line contractual negotiations to plunge-by-plunge sexual athletics, Dubai is a catalogue of banal detail and petty debauchery. Even the action scenes and global intrigues are described in terms of such numbing minutiae as to become entirely uninteresting.

In 1969, Moore had earned praise (and impressive sales figures) for his Green Berets, but Dubai fails to achieve even that book's dubious standard. Green Berets had, for better or for worse, the blinkered philosophical commitment of jingoism. Dubai is an empty book, filled with greedy, soulless people. 

(File away under "interesting things discovered in research": Mr. Moore was chucked out of a "Soldier of Fortune" convention in 1980 for racist comments in his keynote speech. Six years later, he pleaded guilty to creating literary tax shelters - selling the rights to his own works to investors at grossly inflated values. On the other hand, he inspired "The French Connection", co-wrote a #1 hit single, and even co-wrote a comic strip with Joe Kubert that ran in newspapers for three years. That's all much more interesting than Dubai was.)

(The gorgeous cover art for this edition was painted by Fred Pfeiffer, who was responsible for a lot of the Bantam paperbacks from the era. Someone's put together a nice tribute blog, collecting his work. Mr. Pfeiffer's a bit of a mystery - he appeared on the scene, made some great art [including a lot of Doc Savage covers] - and returned to his home town of Overland Park, Kansas, where he sadly took his own life. So, in short, everything about this book is interesting and affecting... except for the text itself.)