How to tell the bad guys in a novel of post-Cold War intrigue: They’re the ones chopping down trees. How to tell the good guys: They’re the trees. Nearly everyone else is rotten to the core, or has none, in this intelligent, fast-paced first novel that starts with a dinner party and ends days later with a revolution in the fictional country of Direv Saraun, a composite of the Philippines and East Timor. Packer’s hero, Dan Levin, is a smug American reporter with delusions of grandeur. He imagines his exclusive interviews with a fabled guerrilla leader will stave off American intervention and civil war. Instead he finds both rebels and military using him to expedite their plans for mutual mayhem.

In The Half Man he concludes the U.S. is no longer a major power. Third world countries can now self-destruct without our aid. Marxist dogma is equally obsolete. What’s left is the law of the jungle. Everyone is guilty except the jungle itself, or, as it’s now called, the rain forest. Unfortunately, the hero who wrests these conventions from the heart of darkness is naive beyond belief and sounds like a college kid with a premature mid-life crisis. Packer’s pessimism seems borrowed from the Conrad-Greene-Naipaul tradition, rather than earned. The narrative verve is his own, however, and promising. B

The Half Man
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