The Poet Game

Salar Abdoh, Author Picador USA $23 (240p) ISBN 978-0-312-20954-4
Balancing bombing conspiracies and international arms trading with literary allusions and psychological intrigue, this debut spy novel aims high. Sami Amir is an Iranian with an American mother, a Catholic school education and a job as a translator. He is reluctantly pressed into counterintelligence service by a secret Iranian government agency and sent to New York City to infiltrate an Arab terrorist group called Section 19 that seems intent on committing acts of sabotage following the World Trade Center bombing. After a brief internment in a grungy Brooklyn tenement, he finds himself suspended dangerously in a struggle between American and Middle Eastern intelligence forces. He soon falls in love with one of his contacts in the States, an American spy/stripper named Ellena. As their romance progresses, Sami makes some startling discoveries--for starters, Ellena keeps a bomb under her bed--that put their affections to the test. Meanwhile, he manages to survive various attacks by terrorist thugs, striking back on occasion and eventually realizing he has been set up by his own employers. The novel races through a series of atmospheric settings--including a warehouse in Brooklyn, a public garden in the East Village and a political science conference at Columbia University--all sketched with a winning economy of detail. Operatives from a host of Middle Eastern countries are vividly described, too, and Abdoh's dialogue is tight, despite some lapses into self-conscious noir. Sami himself is an unusually sensitive action hero, with an appreciation of literature, an eye for poignant detail and a sentimental side. As he says, he believes he and Ellena are just ""failed poets trying to get it right in the wrong trade,"" and samplings of Ellena's poetry appear throughout. Such attempts to infuse the story with higher meaning sometimes fall flat, but this is nevertheless an entertaining and heart-quickening debut. Agent, Watkins-Loomis. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
Paperback - 240 pages - 978-0-312-20968-1
Prebound-Sewn - 978-1-4177-0675-4
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