Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

Posted in Blog by - July 18, 2017

Whiskey Tango FoxtrotThe Pacific Northwest seems to exert a natural gravity on iconoclastic novelists. Ken Kesey lived most of his life in Oregon and wrote what is arguably the iconic Oregon novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Tom Robbins spent the majority of his adult life in Seattle. Richard Brautigan, born in Tacoma, would wind up in Eugene, Oregon, where a public sculpture of Kesey stands today. “Oregon is the citadel of the spirit,” Kesey once wrote.

(Which is a nice way of saying what I found unavoidable in the three years I lived outside Portland: Oregonians typically take pride in dogged anti-authoritarianism.)

New York City-born Portland resident David Shafer’s debut novel continues that tradition with its three nonconformist protagonists: Leila Majnoun, a feisty Persian-American woman who becomes the Woman Who Saw Too Much while working for an international nonprofit in a remote corner of Myanmar; Leo Crane, a paranoic substance abuser spiraling downward in Portland, and Leo’s college buddy Mark Devereaux, now the self-despising author of a wildly successful self-help manual he doesn’t believe in himself.

There are echoes of Thomas Pynchon (especially his latest novel, Bleeding Edge) in the circumstance that makes the trio unlikely allies: a scheme to collect and monetize all the private information in the world. David Foster Wallace can be felt too, in a section set in a recovery community that recalls large portions of Infinite Jest.

But the Myanmar sections of Shafer’s book are my favorite; Leila is a sympathetic heroine and Shafer’s evocation of the exotic locale is vivid and convincing. Leo and Mark are also likable despite being far more flawed than Leila, but they are more alike than may be optimal in a novel with multiple third-person points of view: Sometimes they feel like two halves of the same character. There are also passages of dialogue that go on longer than may need to, convenient coincidences, and a rather pat romantic subplot.

But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is also filled with clever conceits, and the issues it ambitiously tackles are highly topical. I think Ken Kesey would approve.

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Rick Schindler grew up in the idyllic northern suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y., a psychic stone’s throw from Archie Andrews’ hometown of Riverdale. His writing career began at age 15 when he won a New York Times award for a short story published in his high school literary magazine. At 19 he interned on the copy desk of the Buffalo News, where he discovered a knack for headline writing that has served him in good stead until the present day. He went on to a checkered media career that has included stints at HBO, TV Guide and NBC News Digital, where today he is a writer and editor for the website of the venerable American TV show TODAY. Schindler shared a 2012 Sigma Delta Chi award in online reporting with NBC News’ Bob Dotson for the “American Story with Bob Dotson” features on TODAY.com. He also won two 2012 awards in headline writing from the American Copy Editors Society, another in 2014 and two more in 2015. Schindler lives in White Plains, New York.