Tom Paine, Author . Harcourt $24 (320p) ISBN 978-0-15-100518-5

Paine's first novel, his follow-up to the acclaimed story collection Scar Vegas, takes us on a rollicking ride through the Arabian desert during the Gulf War. Our guides are two AWOL marines: Cody Carmichael, a California stoner, and Tommy Trang, a zealous patriot who's half-Vietnamese, half-American and cagey about his past. The teenagers are stationed in Saudi Arabia on the eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. While they're hunting for pearls off the coast of Kuwait, Trang and Carmichael save the life of 16-year-old Princess Lulu, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, who tried to drown herself because she's engaged to a debauched, middle-aged Saudi prince. Lulu and Trang inconveniently develop the hots for each other. After Iraq invades, Trang decides to rescue Lulu from the occupying army, setting in motion a series of reliably entertaining escapades that include an attempt to turn the ragtag Kuwaiti resistance fighters into a Bill of Rights–loving liberation army. Carmichael narrates the novel in his fluid surfer patois, which Paine deftly uses to comic effect ("Princess Lulu was like torching a blue-eyed gaze into Trang that would make your hair crinkle. Last time I had seen a look like that was when the king of Saudi Arabia's hawk was eyeballing me like he wanted to eat my infidel liver"). Paine shows his usual affection for all kinds of political underdogs, but the novel lacks the moral complexity of his best stories. Tommy Trang is an idealized, flag-waving modern folk hero who stands up for Muslim women and will "save this crazy Arab world" with his trigger-happy instincts, which always serve the cause of justice. Various Arabs are predictably lampooned for intolerance or decadence. Paine's naïfs are less Huck and Jim than Bill and Ted on an excellent, Hollywood-ready adventure, but his sense of humor is irresistible. (Mar.)

Forecast:Paine's Scar Vegas was a favorite with critics, and this well-timed novel should get major review coverage.

Reviewed on: 03/03/2003
Release date: 03/01/2003
Paperback - 310 pages - 978-0-15-602898-1
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