By Tom LeClair.
243 pp. Dunkirk, N.Y.
Olin Frederick. $21.95.
By Andrew Santella
New York Times Book Review, October 8, 2000
Casey Mahan, the heroine of Tom LeClair's new novel, is an American
attorney working in the Athens office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees. An examiner of Kurdish applicants for
asylum, she spends her days listening to stories of terror and sifting
evidence to make decisions that may mean life or death for those
across her desk.
Mahan is supposed to be an objective evaluator, a judge with power
over people in pitiable straits. ''Always we were in the dark,''
one Kurd writes on her application, describing being smuggled into
Greece below deck of a ship. ''Well-Founded Fear'' is the story
of how Mahan finds herself similarly adrift and clueless, and how,
betrayed by her own sympathies, she ends up on the run and in danger.
By the time she pauses to ask herself, in distress, ''What do you
know for sure?'' any pretense to Solomonic wisdom has eroded. Her
response is a tellingly short list of facts.
Recently made partner in her Cincinnati law firm, Mahan has taken
a leave to work for the United Nations. Single and uninvolved, she
thinks of it as her alternative to maternity leave, her ''baby year.''
It is clear to the reader from the beginning of this novel, though,
that things have already gone awry for Mahan.
Mahan has befriended a Kurdish applicant for refugee status named
Ziba Mamozin, who impressed Mahan with her strength after torture
at the hands of the Turkish police. Mahan lands Mamozin a job as
a translator, and the two spend their off hours exploring Athens,
while taking pains to keep their friendship secret. The real trouble
starts when Mamozin asks Mahan to intervene on behalf of her brother,
who is imprisoned in Turkey on charges of treason. As a consequence
of her actions on behalf of Mamozin's brother, she is herself drawn
into a world of international terror.
The novel's title refers to the standard set by the United
Nations for determining refugee status: applicants must demonstrate
''well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion,
nationality, membership of a particular social group or political
opinion.'' But LeClair is also concerned with a larger, more varied
inventory of fears, phobias and dread. Thus Mahan, a young American
professional troubled by acrophobia, encounters a middle-aged Kurdish
widow who believes herself to be hexed by the evil eye. To figure
out what to do about the woman's application, Mahan goes to an English-language
bookstore to research fear in various cultures, from the Serbs to
the Masai of Tanzania. She decides to reject the woman's application.
''Well-Founded Fear'' is LeClair's second novel, but he may be best
known for ''In the Loop,'' his study of Don DeLillo's fiction. This
novel shares some features with DeLillo's fictional world: Jesuit-educated
protagonists, an appreciation for jargon, a preoccupation with terrorism.
''Well-Founded Fear'' is a workmanlike novel that introduces the
uninformed to the plight of the Kurds, who, we are dutifully told,
are ''the world's oldest refugees.'' It also offers insight into
the peculiar logic of Mahan's job at the United Nations. But it
fails to deliver on other counts. Mahan's reasons for moving by
herself across an ocean are never adequately explored. And too often
the dialogue is wooden. (Here is Mahan on hearing Mamozin's brother
has been charged with treason: ''Jesus, no. Not treason.'' Mamozin:
Mahan tells her story in documentary fashion, in the language of
bureaucracy. She organizes her narrative -- her testimony, really
-- like a refugee's file. Supplemented by questionnaires, interviews,
letters of recommended action, her narrative appeals to ''laws and
rules, facts and acts, grounds.''
If Mahan becomes the asylum seeker, readers are asked to take her
place behind the evaluator's desk, to hear her appeal, to gauge
her reliability, to judge her actions. ''My motives are still mysterious
to me,'' she concludes. Her testimony may leave an evaluator feeling
sympathetic but unsatisfied.