By Christopher S. Wren
Simon & Schuster, $23
By REENA SHAH STAMETS
Pity the poor foreign correspondent stuck in some benighted outpost, covering a civil war no one cares about while battling with local censors, apathetic editors and his own cynicism.
New York Times reporter Christopher Wren's Hacks draws on his own experience as a foreign reporter to create a droll lampoon of his profession.
Although obligatorily compared to Evelyn Waugh's Scoop because of its subject, here there is no unwitting star journalist who becomes famous because of his readers' appetite for war stories. Wren's hacks are jaded laptop-bearing warriors who spend as much time searching for good exchange rates on the black market and worrying about getting laid as they do unearthing scoops that placate editors but make little difference to the lives of the people they write about.
His hardened hero, T. K. Farrell _ as in t.k., journalistic argot for "to come" scribbled in the blank space where a missing statistic is to be inserted _ is out there in the fictional African nation of Equatoria (modeled after Angola and Mozambique) swilling beer with fellow hacks, combing the country for distraught victims who speak English and churning out ominously trite stories about its never-ending war. Theirs is a world where editors fine staff members who use the word "foreign" even in their foreign news coverage, believing this will alienate readers.
The pack is sent scrambling in search of real stories when competition arrives in the form of shapely, sandal-shod, virginal Cassandra Benoit, a radio stringer from Canada. Spurned as a rookie, Benoit goes her own way and, helped by her wide-eyed idealism and her complete ignorance of her own foolish risk-taking, begins unearthing scandals. Her stories read like fresh, colorful postcards and have other editors calling their reporters _ like T. K. _ and galling them with commands to come up with their versions of Benoit's dispatches.
T. K.'s woes are compounded by his editors' e-mailed commands that he carry into the bush a teddy bear sent by the publisher's granddaughter and her fellow kindergartners. The newspaper calculates that it can whet reader interest in foreign news by sending the bear on a round-robin of all its overseas bureaus:
"Circulation's up twelve thousand in our primary market area since the Lifestyle section featured Scoopie Bear on Wednesdays," the foreign editor says. "It's visited Buckingham Palace with our London bureau chief, climbed Mount Fujiyama with our Tokyo correspondent, ridden a camel around the Pyramids of Cairo _"
In Equatoria Scoopie Bear goes into the mine-infested bush _ but is disembowelled during an ambush by guerrillas, and contributes to T. K's ultimate expulsion by government authorities who decide CIA agents, not journalists, are more likely to travel around war zones with teddy bears.
Cassandra Benoit's looks win her auditions from television networks, and U.S. soldiers are poised to intervene in the war _ but then Beau Bradford, a network twink who parachutes in to cover the war stirs up an irate crowd with a thumbs up (equivalent to giving the finger in Equatoria) and manages to get some birdshot in his derriere.
Bradford's travails stir up a public outcry against sending American GIs to Equatoria. He rebounds, after surgery, to a career boosted by paid speeches and bids for movie rights on his story. Equatoria's people keep dying. Benoit's network career fizzles once her boss learns she is a real reporter _ and one very picky about whom she sleeps with.
The novel falters midway, sagging with episode after episode of Cassandra's news scoops and barside banter as T. K. and his colleagues lust after her. But Hacks is an entertaining romp, taking readers through an engaging tour of journalism's cliches and pithy dilemmas. Almost everyone is foolish or corrupt. Equatoria's patriots are soldiers and rebels who think nothing of destroying the country they profess to love.
Even the U.N. officials are not spared: "Like locusts, they descended on fact-finding junkets with their retinues of staff, pigged out at government banquets and flew off again loaded with teak souvenirs, leaving behind ineffectual promises and large bills."
Reena Shah Stamets is a Times staff writer.