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Wrap It in Flags
by Robert Terrall
(Penguin Books)

Review by John Gabree

Robert Terrall has written this hilarious lampoon of the so-called military industrial complex the way Terry Southern might have done "The Mouse That Roared."

Illuminado Castillo, a young Columbian Army captain, is a guest at the Counter-Coup School in Washington, D.C., one of the international academies funded by the Pentagon out of its public service account. Illuminado has been sent by the newly installed three-man Columbian junta to spy on the North Americans' new plan for a high technology Maginot Line across the Isthmus of Panama. He has also been dispatched by his mistress, wife of the junta chairman and a devoted reader of women's romantic fiction from the Book of the Month Club, to what she fantasizes is a vast college of sexual knowledge.

At home in Colombia and in the Capital of the Free World, Illuminado, a Latin American Magic Christian, suffers a Zoo Parade of libertines, ambitious politicians, reluctant underlings, overenthusiastic American advisers, spooks, ideologues, rapacious weapons manufacturers, informers, muggers, efficiency experts, bag men, propagandists, and every other kind of con man that comes boiling up from Terrall's fevered imagination. The author has a knack for making sense out of the confusion of failed weapons systems, high-level fraud and Tiffany toilet seats that make up so much of the news from Washington. For example, watching Illuminado's little escapade at a Columbian gambling casino grow into a Pentagon briefing's "guerrilla raid" makes it easier to comprehend real-life celebrations of Contra "freedom-fighters."

Although Terrall is an angry man, for the most part he keeps his anger in check, allowing a sharp ear for military-industrial-bureaucratic jargon to permit the bad guys to self-destruct. What, an officer wants to know, is Porcupine? "Porcupine, O.K., that's APFs, sir. Antipersonnel flechettes. High velocity, range I believe of five hundred meters. We demonstrate that against some of the mock-ups, Vietcong usually, using the new targeting sensor that you program for individual bodily smells. You take your typical guerrilla, he's been sleeping out in a jungle for weeks. Primitive diet, primitive sanitary facilities. He's going to smell totally different from a G.I. who's probably just had a shower and a shave. And I'm not just saying that. It's been proved scientifically."

Robert Terrall may not be a familiar name to you, perhaps because many of his 50 or so novels have been written under pseudonyms, including the 24 "Mike Shayne" mysteries he signed Brett Halliday. But in "Wrap It in Flags," he has composed an accomplished political shaggy dog story. Without trying too hard, this novel saunters along taking amiable potshots at a gallery (shooting variety) of deserving targets. The title comes from a quote attributed to Stefa Salkin: "You couldn't sell that fish to the Poles if you wrapped it in flags." There have been many honorable nonfiction exposes of the dubious fish being peddled in Washington lately. None does a better job of reminding us to look inside the wrapping than this entertaining novel. (1986)



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