GOD'S FAVORITE: A NOVEL, by Lawrence Wright (Simon & Schuster), 350 pages, $37 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Panama City, 1989. U.S. troops armed with loudspeakers and a heavy metal playlist surround the Vatican embassy where Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega is seeking sanctuary.
It's a moment that ranks as one of the 20th century's most memorable, providing a fantastic -- in every sense -- climax for God's Favorite, Lawrence Wright's surreal romp through the generalissimo's inglorious reign of terror.
Billed as a novel set in the recent past, Wright's comic text strikes a brilliant spark in the often dismally twee realm of historical fiction. Think Carl Hiaasen doing magic realism.
One of the book's considerable pleasures is the process of trying to suss out the extent to which the characters, including the deliciously machiavellian papal nuncio who serves as protagonist, are actually based on fact.
While Wright, an award-winning staff writer with the New Yorker and author of five non-fiction books, goes to great lengths to assure readers that his version of military dictator Tony Noriega and the sleazy coterie surrounding him are only loosely based on their historical counterparts, the events as Wright "imagines" them feel hideously plausible.
Ultimate achievement And despite the author's disclaimers, his acknowledgement of help from Panamanian players including Noriega's chief political adviser, a former president, a vice-president and a Panama City mayor serves as a sharp reminder that truth often out-weirds fiction.
Wright's ultimate achievement, though, is to render the superstitious and insecure dictator popularly known as Pineapple Face as a sympathetic character without ever losing sight of Noriega's critical role in perpetrating genuinely horrific acts against the Panamanian people.
A true tragicomedy, and a must-read for any cynic with an interest in Central American politics.