Neither arid nor thoughtful, Babylon by Bus tells the agreeably goofy story of Ray LeMoine and Jeff Neumann, twentysomething American party boys who were mourning a Red Sox defeat and nursing hangovers when they hatched their cockeyed Mideast trip. In 2004, after a whiskey-drenched 24-hour bus ride to Baghdad — ”a futuristic Wild West saloon in the middle of a modern-day Crusade” — the pair were hired as ”NGO coordinators and capacity builders for the CPA’s NGO Assistance Office, whatever that meant.”
What it meant was coordinating between coalition forces and nongovernmental organizations in Iraq. During their three-month Excellent Adventure, they collected anecdotes of administrative chaos and horrific poverty. But the choicest material in this strenuously lighthearted book is their infiltration of expat society: a mix of Republican Bee Gees fans, boozy humanitarians, and mercenary goons. Jeff found a girlfriend; Ray invented the Arab Tom Collins — ”a shot of arrack and a shot of Valium with a dab of water.” One of the most telling revelations about postwar Iraq, as the authors acknowledge, is that clowns like them were part of it.