Book Review: Nuclear Blues

It has been said, perhaps apocryphally, that when Leo Tolstoy showed a friend the manuscript of his monumental 1,225-page masterpiece War and Peace, the friend read it and remarked that the book had everything but a horse race. Tolstoy backed up and wrote in a horse race.

In far fewer pages, Bradley K. Martin, a long-time Asian correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek Magazine, the Asian Wall Street Journal and other publications (disclosure: a former colleague) has stuffed an amazing series of coincidental and accidental relationships and bizarre events into his rambunctious, rollicking, dystopian novel Nuclear Blues – so many that he didn’t need a horse race.

This is a book that might cause Cubby Broccoli to abandon James Bond. It is a murderous, chaotic romp through a near-future North Korea by a Korean-American guitar picker, Bible-thumper, bourbon drinker and burned out photojournalist from America’s deep south state of Mississippi now plying his musical trade in Japanese night clubs, who goes to the Korean DMZ to snap pictures for a Hong Kong-based news portal and ends up taking pictures of his best friend, gunned down by North Korean guards as he runs breaks away from a tour on the north side and runs for it, shouting the words “sixty-seven twenty.” His dead hand opens to reveal the letters CDS penned on a palm.

Festus Park (Heck) Davis, born of a union between a South Korean woman and a deep southerner, is catapulted into an adventure that includes the obligatory pneumatic North Korean spy, a fundamentalist Christian university in North Korea (?) operated by a dead ringer for Oral Roberts/Jimmy Swaggart/Billy James Hargis/Billy Graham/Pat Robertson next to a huge cave where “tractors” are said to be manufactured instead of atomic weapons; Iranian agents seeking a bomb; the noxious family of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his descendants; a behemoth investment bank that could be mistaken for Goldman Sachs (Goldberg Stanton???) and much, much more.

When the dead man’s insurance company contests paying out on his life insurance policy, Heck’s Hong Kong-based editor gives him the assignment of infiltrating North Korea – as a music teacher at the Christian university – to find out the truth. Needless to say, murders occur, wickedness nearly prevails. The book contains some of the clearest explanations of what credit debt swaps are and how they are used outside of a financial textbook.

Brad Martin is the author of the highly-praised Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, called by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff “simply the best book ever written about North Korea, a statement that is true.

In an afterword, Martin says he tried to “imagine a best-case scenario for an atrociously ruled country that typically inspires only pessimism. It is a work of fiction.” Nonetheless, he says, the book owes considerable to the reporting, research and news analysis that formed a major part of his career as a Pyongyang-watcher. A Georgia boy himself, he has obviously heard enough gospel music and down-home preaching to add more veracity as well.

Back in 1817, the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” suggesting that if an author could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into an utterly fanciful tale, the reader would ignore the implausibility of the narratives long enough to keep reading. I am not sure, given the fantastical events that take place in this book, that the reader is going to be able to suspend his disbelief, but he or she is likely to keep reading anyhow.

But it doesn’t matter. It is no more difficult than imagining that the President of the United States ignores his entire state department, department of defense, national security advisers and all of his allies and makes the impulsive decision – without conditions -- to talk to the current facsimile edition of the Kims, the man who is said to have used an anti-aircraft weapon on his own uncle, poisoned his brother to death in Kuala Lumpur, sank a South Korean corvette, fired ICBMs over the Sea of Japan (or Korea), and runs a despotic regime that has starved its people for generations and much, much more.

So Nuclear Blues maybe isn’t that far-fetched. In any case, it is a fast-paced and endlessly entertaining novel that also manages to impart, outside of the main narrative, a sense of what North Korea is about. It is not a pretty place.