Expatriate. For some of us the word conjures up cuddly bohemians living penniless in beautiful cities far from the dreariness of their middle-class upbringings, waiting to be visited by a muse fueled by poverty, drugs, absinthe, or sex. But that was decades ago. The word assumed a new meaning in the wild, globalized 1990s, when American businesspeople and military contractors, the journalists who followed both, and the people who hung on all three moved out into the world to shuffle resources, jobs, and products around the continents.
These are the expats Derek Green writes about in his fascinating first collection of short stories, New World Order. Although these stories take place in such different places as Caracas, the Green Zone in Baghdad, Bangkok, South Africa, Western Australia, and Dubai, they are unified by the shadowy presence of the Halliburtonesque Mason Worldwide, "the ultimate low-profile, high-profit multinational conglomerate." "It's this huge thing," one character says, "this monstrous thing with tentacles that reach all over the world. It touches thousands, probably millions of people." Though never a major player in the stories, the company defines the mercenary and rapacious ethic that governs the lives of the characters — even those who are trying to resist it.
In the haunting "Road Train," an American journalist hitches a ride on one of the gigantic trucks that haul things north across the Western Australian desert. He wants to write a story about these fabled giant trucks, the largest in the world, that travel at top speeds along gravel roads and can take more than a mile to stop. As always in these international stories, Green is quick but spectacular with landscape description: "The sky, unhindered by cloud or tree, had a brute quality, immense and distant. Refracted light scattered into fire-ridged spectra in the cab's windshield, revealing the sun for what it was — a lonely fire raging immeasurably above." The Mason Group appears only as the owner of the trucking company, yet the need to move goods rapidly across the planet becomes the driving ethic of the story, radically changing even the naive journalist in ways he had never imagined possible.
In the last story of New World Order, "Almost Home," the protagonist — a journalist returning after five years of work in Asia — is seated on the long trans-Pacific flight beside a loud, overweight man who sells refrigerator parts. She clearly detests him, and finally tells him so. Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to bother him in the least. In the end, after they have landed in Los Angeles, "she wondered whatever in this strange world could possibly make her feel close to a man like that." But the story takes place on August 10, 2001, a month and a day before she would have her answer. And before the New World Order, if it existed at all, collapses under the weight of its own illusions. Derek Green has given us an exquisite look at a moment and an attitude that disappeared those seven years ago yet still seems to color a good deal of our national self-image.
Derek Green reads from New World Order at Shaut cabaret on Thursday, September 11.
[Review published September 2008]