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A MIDLIFE, MIDEAST CRISIS

Little America

By Henry Bromell

Knopf

396 pages; $24

...

Other 50-year-old university professors might buy scarlet Miatas and trade in their wives for wide-eyed coeds. But Terry Hooper finds himself swept along by a midlife crisis of another caliber: figuring out what his father the spy was up to during the years he dragged his family to the tiny Mideast country of Kurash.

He says he wants to write a book about what he learns, but his interest is anything but academic. He is full of questions about what happened in a country erased from the maps long ago, but his real questions are much closer, darker, larger than mere history. He wants to know whether his father is a respectable man or an evil one and how he should view his childhood and his family, the foundations of his life.

As 10-year-old Terry whiled away the hours waging mock war with his collections of lead soldiers and tanks on his bedroom floor, his father was off in the searing sun, lining up flesh and blood soldiers, witting and otherwise, to carry out the Cold War machinations consuming U.S. policymakers at the time.

The British were backing out of the country they'd created, and the race was on between the Americans, Soviets and Arab nationalists to win the heart of the nation's young playboy king. Son of an assassinated king, we understand early on that he does not survive the tale himself. As the narrative weaves back and forth between the eras of Hooper's life, the looming storm cloud ratchets up the tension until it hums like a piano string.

Bromell presents a desert teeming with worthy characters, from a 22-year-old king with a taste for fast cars and loose English girls to Kurashian intelligence chief Major Rashid, a straightforward man in a hall of mirrors, and Kumait al-Farid, a professor, philosopher and confidant of the king. Hooper's mother isn't as thoroughly drawn as besotted CIA secretary Renee Bartlett, who watches over her little nest of spies with an automatic pistol in her top desk drawer.

From the perspective of midlife, Hooper comprehends the effectiveness in his father's line of attack on the fatherless king. He gave him a strong man he could safely admire from a distance, one with a ready word of sage advice. Since he happened to be a CIA agent determined to deflect him from joining the Communist menace, delivered monthly satchels full of cash as well.

Bromell deftly bridges the quantum jumps from personal mysteries to historical mysteries, with Hooper's fading confidence in his family's history mirroring America's disappointment with itself.

In the Kurash of his childhood, the American brand was invincible. His father and the men like him roared out into the desert to carve out a Little America wherever they went, carrying along Chevrolets and washing machines, ice cream and hamburgers with them. What sort of people wouldn't want a dry martini? Or, for that matter, a dab of American-style democracy in the face of the godless Russian Bear?

The adult Hooper knows better, after Vietnam and all that followed, added to the weight of personal disappointments, like seeing his once-heroic father through the eyes of a middle-aged man.

The secret war for the future of Kurash, the conflict between history and memory, between father and son all bear fruit in Bromell's engaging work. In places, "Little America" provokes the thought of what John LeCarre would have written had his stomping grounds been the halls of Langley and not gloomy old London. Intermediate string overflow Cannot justify line

"Little America" might provoke thoughts of LeCarre, but it dispels them again quickly. Every so often, as the plot slows, a hidden door snaps open in the library paneling to propel Hooper forward. Unfelicities aside, Bromell's work has both the brawny conceit and the telling detail to hold readers hostage.

Andrew Z. Galareneau is a reporter in The News' Niagara Bureau. e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com