Hocus Potus by Malcolm MacPherson
If nothing else, Malcom MacPherson’s Hocus Potus solidifies the waiting period for post-9/11 fiction: four years.
That was how long after 9/11 Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came out, followed swiftly by Jay McInerney and Don DeLillo’s 9/11 novels (how dashing it all seems, like Madonna and Smashing Pumpkins’ electronica albums), which addressed the event using different literary strategies but uniform gravitas. The attacks were, after all, attacks.
MacPherson tackles the Iraq War. His only option is farce.
Hocus Potus (POTUS is Secret Sevice shorthand for “President of the United States”) centers around Rick Gannon, a roguish government appointee in Iraq who tries to fake a WMD and sell it to the US government to help them justify the invasion and war. The plot is a logline and the book, accordingly, reads like a film, with longer chapters at the start giving way to a twisty staccato climax and big set pieces at the beginning and end. Unfortunately, like so many films, plot holes of the sort you could drive a Bradley armored fighting vehicle through distract the reader.
Gannon and his crew, a motley group including a CNN reporter and Iraqi soccer star, all squandered with a lack of characterization, are caught by the US government in the first few chapters attempting to steal $100 million in cash from a C-13 Hercules aircraft. When the Herc lands in Turkey, Army Rangers are on the tarmac, tipped off by the pilot. Tossed as prisoners into Iraq’s National Stadium, which reads like Guantanamo meets the Superdome without any of the torture, Gannon’s crew are curiously allowed to conspire as if they were in summer camp and hatch the WMD plan.
MacPherson was a journalist for 12 years at Time and Newsweek; Time had him cover Ambassador Paul Bremer, thinly veiled as “Ambassador Taylor” in Hocus Potus. This is his first attempt at fiction, and it shows; the dialogue, action, and nonfiction analysis of post-war Iraq work; the description and emotion don’t.
However, MacPherson uncovers more humor in Iraq than the news did, and that’s no small feat. Saddam Hussein’s romance novels are given a position in the plot both hilarious and believable, and when a Saddam impersonator hands out business cards declaring that he’s fooled the CIA and is available for Bar-Mitzvahs, we realize that we’re in the hands of a skilled wit that one hopes will develop now that he’s retired from war correspondence.
At the same time, MacPherson brings home salient and sad points about Iraq, particularly the dismissal by US troops of the Baathist army, who proceeded with haste to become the insurgency. (In the book’s finest moment, Ambassador Taylor tries to defend this decision to Katie Couric, using a catch-22 worthy of MacPherson’s war-parody predecessors.) The author also addresses our sad what is wrong with these people? attitude, now answered resonantly: nobody likes to be occupied by a foreign power, no matter how bad things were before. Other issues treated frankly and insightfully are the resentment by the troops of becoming policemen and the lack of a call for national sacrifice following 9/11, when Americans might just have accepted a gas tax that would strangle the Saudis who gave us the hijackers.
With all these tragedies, how can MacPherson make the Iraq War so funny? For the same reason that a toddler falling down is funny and a toddler getting punched in the face isn’t. One is the victim of abuse; the other just stepped where he shouldn’t.
Hocus Potus by Malcolm MacPherson