Sunday, August 07, 2011

Book 25 – The Tourist

Olen Steinhauer

In mid-July, I found myself sans un livre a couple of days before my vacation and wanted something non-committal that I could easily resume upon my return home. The Tourist seemed like a good choice. Coincidentally, both Mount Benson and Kate had also read this book around the same time.

I had never heard of The Tourist before spotting a review copy on the freebie shelf at my work. At first I thought it was related to that silly Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie vehicle that came out recently.  Though it also features undercover agents in Europe, Steinhauer’s novel is a totally different animal. In Steinhauer’s novel, a Tourist is code for a CIA black-op agent with highly specialized skills. Somewhere in the CIA building on the Avenue of the Americas are secret floors stocked with Travel Agents who gather information from Tourists scattered “in all the populated continents”.

Like Kate and Mt Benson, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away or anything, but I did enjoy The Tourist. It had an interesting enough storyline, a decent amount of action and believable human drama, though the premise itself is far from original. If you’ve seen enough spy movies such as the likes of Mission Impossible or the Bourne series, you’ll recognize the tropes:

All Tourists know the importance of awareness. When you enter a room or a park, you chart the escapes immediately. You take in the potential weapons around you—a chair, ballpoint pen, letter opener, or even the loose, low-hanging branch on the tree behind Milo’s bench. At the same time, you consider the faces. Are they aware of you? Or are they feigning a forced ignorance that is the hallmark of other Tourists?

And you won’t be all that surprised who the “bad guy” turns out to be, like I wasn’t. But unlike a typical Hollywood action movie, there was a level of realism that I quite appreciated in Steinhauer's book.

There is definitely a bit of self-deprecating humour in the name given to Milo Weaver, the protagonist who is the Tourist in question. He could have been Mark Whacker or something like that – a tough, ass-kicking kind of guy whom you can escape - but not really identity - with. Whether he’s burned out by amphetamines, listening to France Gall on his ipod at the airport or longing to be with his family (again), there is a world-weary frailty to Milo Weaver that helps make The Tourist likable and fairly memorable.

The NYT review writes: Milo would be the kind of principled hero we long to believe still exists in fiction, if not in life. The only drawback to this warm close-up of the protagonist is that it skews the novel, rendering it more of a character study than a full-bodied espionage novel.

It’s not surprising (as Mt Benson already mentioned) that George Clooney has already optioned the book. The character of Milo Weaver would make a great role for someone like Clooney, though it would bear remarkable similarities to the tired assassin he played in the somewhat boring, The American. And The Tourist has the potential to be a much better movie than The American (as well as that Johnny Depp/Angelina vehicle of the same name, for that matter!).

The Washington Post writes: Much of the time, neither we nor Weaver has much idea what's going on, but we keep reading because he is likable -- a mess but still the most honorable man in view -- and because Steinhauer seems to know the world of spies and assassins all too well. In his telling, it's a nasty, duplicitous world, but it feels real. The question is whether our reluctant Tourist can get out alive and return to the wife and daughter who are counting on him to take them to Disney World. We are clearly being asked to consider which is more surreal: the spy world or Disney World.

One thing that rang false for me was how Milo met his wife, Tina. Olenhauer devotes barely any time to their first meeting, and assumes the reader will fill in the blanks regarding the reasons behind Milo’s near blind devotion to his wife and stepdaughter (whom he considers to be his own flesh and blood). It was on that day Milo had decided that his Tourist days were over, but there was no emotional explanation for how that fateful encounter with Tina changed the course of his life. It seemed rather lazy that the author avoided any exploration of this. Instead we have Tina explain to Homeland Security agent Janet Simmons how she and Milo bonded after seeing the World Trade Center collapse on TV when they were recovering at the hospital.  It was 9/11 that brought them together!

“When I figured out what had happened, I started crying, and that woke Milo. I showed him what my tears were about, and when he got it, he started crying, too. Both of us, in that hospital room, wept together. From then on, we were inseparable.”


That little snippet alone would be enough to make Olman stay away from this book!

But really, that was the only, if rather ringing, false note for me.

“It was a basic truth of Tourism,” Milo reminds himself, “that you trusted no one. Yet, if you had to trust anyone, it had better not be another Tourist.” 

I agree with the NYT reviewer who notes:   This is the kind of tough thinking (and strong writing) that surfaces whenever Steinhauer gets to what really interests him — the crippling disillusion and nerve-snapping paranoia that breed in closed cultures where trust is absent and internal intrigue rampant.

So yeah, I would definitely read the sequel, The Nearest Exit, if it ever appears on the freebie shelf at work!

1 comment:

OlmanFeelyus said...

Great review! I'm sold, despite the 9-11 factor.