In Print : A tough look at the harsh truth
"Eclipse" by Richard North Patterson, Henry Holt and Co., 384 pp. $26.
Some good books are merely enjoyable dalliances. Good books can also be thought-provoking or most importantly, perhaps, disturbing.
Disturbing books produce one certain outcome: they cause us to think in unbidden, different, and sometimes forgotten ways about the world and, in the case of "Eclipse," Island resident Richard North Patterson's latest novel, whether or not we are in responsible relationship with it.
The novel is a page-turner, but it is not a fun read. It is riveting and ought to be disturbing to the people who live and consume in America and the western world. The book tells us we are not in a morally responsible relationship with the world.
Released this month by Henry Holt and Co., "Eclipse" is the story of Luandia, a West African petro-nation, ruled by a monster and ravaged by a United States-based oil company. The excesses of both the ruler and the company are ignored by our country, and a world community ravenous for its energy to run their economies. "Eclipse" reminds us that human misery has become acceptable collateral damage.
The novel is set in this millennium, but it is based, the author says, on similar circumstances that occurred in Nigeria 15 years ago.
Luandia has jailed and tortured a native revolutionary for the murders of three employees of PetroGlobal Limited (PGL), the partner of the Luandian government and a subsidiary of a U.S. company.
Damon Pierce is an accomplished human rights attorney who met Luandian rights activist Bobby Okari and his wife, Marissa, during their time at Berkeley in northern California. When Savior Karama, Luandia's president, jails Bobby, Marissa reaches out to Pierce to defend him, and Pierce's defense allows readers to understand in detail the moral stakes for all the players around the globe.
As much for Marissa as for her freedom fighter husband, Pierce goes to Luandia, leaving his condo overlooking San Francisco bay to descend into a society of rampant and random violence, greed, corruption, shifting alliances, treachery and present danger reminiscent of 16th-century European court, Czarist Russia, modern USSR, Nazi Germany, or the late Roman Empire.
PGL has entered a partnership with the sociopathic Karama regime and finds itself hostage to a Hobbesian choice: turn a blind eye to its partner's savagery or risk losing profits and stock value and perhaps its access to Luandian oil to other less finicky countries eager to feed at the spigot.
PGL allows the complete annihilation of two villages, using its resources, to go uninvestigated.
The U.S. government has also made its choice, Pierce finds. In the international chess game, oil is the queen, human rights are pawns. Officially, the U.S. is distressed. Diplomatically, Washington is unmoved.
President Savior Karama understands the game. The court of world opinion may snarl, but its nations will not bite, he believes.
Grayson Caraway, a cynical old hand in the diplomatic service, tells Pierce why world opinion will not affect the outcome: "For all we should have learned, too many Western leaders believe Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were mutants - that the mass murderers of history are somehow different than the standard issue tyrants like Savior Karama." He contends that insane dictators calculate the odds before concluding that murder would actually advance their goals.
The State Department veteran tells Pierce, "The only difference is a matter of scale. Hitler and Pol Pot were millions of bodies into it before they went too far: Stalin and Mao killed millions more and they still died of old age. Karama understands this," he said, adding, "The West's ultimate delusion is that Karama won't kill (Okari) - that it would simply be too blatant."
Mr. Patterson spends very little time talking about alternative energy as a means of reducing the world's violent elbowing for oil. He allows the evidence to speak for itself.
An attorney by training, Mr. Patterson was a successful government litigator before becoming a full-time writer in 1993. His training at laying out a legal action no doubt helped him clearly describe the Byzantine Luandian maze in-country and the machinery of world power centers, along with providing a good yarn.
An unsettling thought occurs as Mr. Patterson's characters repeatedly describe the dependence on oil by mature Western economies and by the explosive growth among Eastern economies: Most wars are fought generally because someone wants something that someone else has. Conflicts involving oil, Patterson reminds us, are not merely about wants. For many nations, they are lifeblood needs.
In his acknowledgements, Mr. Patterson recounts his substantial research on the ground in the region and attempts to visit the Nigerian area in which atrocities occurred more than 15 years ago. No one, including a security company hired by the author, would allow him in because of the continuing danger. No change had occurred.
"Eclipse" leads to us to conclude that apparently what we don't do is having a lethal effect.
This reader's question is: why are we not, in this country, desperately seeking to reduce our dependence on oil. It's good political and ethical strategy and as Marissa Okari says, " I believe the world is the sum of who's in it - that in some way what we do makes other lives better, or worse."
Jack Shea writes regularly for The Martha's Vineyard Times.