Malcolm MacPherson is supposed to be talking about his satirical novel Hocus POTUS, which aims to be Catch-22 for the Occupation Generation. Instead, he’s telling a fish story.
“I was fishing on Lake Turkana on the northern frontier of Kenya…during a total eclipse of the sun,” MacPherson recalls from his home in Warrenton, Va. Dispatched to cover eclipse culture for Newsweek, MacPherson helped pull a 120-pound Nile perch. “An armada of huge crocs came up, and they start eating the Nile perch while we were dragging it to shore,” he says, laughing. “By the time we got it to shore, there was barely enough to feed one person.”
MacPherson’s affection for the absurd and his ability to find humor in desperate circumstances is a major thread in Hocus POTUS. Set in Baghdad shortly after W’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, the novel depicts an Iraq that hadn’t yet devolved to civil war, where locating the country’s promised caches of WMD was considered more pressing than establishing a functioning government. MacPherson’s cast of characters includes a bumbling ambassador, his staff of brainwashed neocons, and a war profiteer who manufactures a phony dirty bomb to sell to the occupiers, who are ever more desperate to muster proof of a doomsday arsenal. MacPherson knows postwar Iraq well—he wrote about it for Time magazine.
“We got shot at a couple of times,” says MacPherson of life in occupied Iraq. “We would go every night across the Tigris and have dinner alfresco. You weren’t worried about being blown up while eating a fish.”
From his makeshift bedroom in a shipping container near Saddam Hussein’s former swimming pool, McPherson saw firsthand the consequences of Bush’s cavalier decision to invade: a military airplane transporting $75 million for reconstruction in blocks of $20 bills, a former Iraqi soccer star jailed as a terrorist, and the playground rocket ship that could be dressed up as WMD—which inspired the novel.
“There’s no way that I could make up the stuff I was seeing there,” says MacPherson of his tour of Iraq. Hocus POTUS tells greater truths about the occupation by favoring Heller-esque irony over gratuitous violence. “The only way to thread [the experience] together was in fiction, and fiction is so much more emotional than nonfiction.”
A former Marine, MacPherson has written numerous nonfiction books, including Roberts Ridge, a bestseller on the Afghan conflict, as well as a handful of thrillers. But the occupation of Iraq seemed to demand dark humor.
“Satire is tragedy with laughter instead of blood,” says Mac-Pherson.
MacPherson discusses and signs copies of his work at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, at Borders, 1801 K St. NW. Free. (202) 466-4999.