David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a novel that evokes only one reaction: it’s title. It cycles through both negative and positive connotations, but by the end of the book, I continued to think: WTF???
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tells the intertwining stories of Leila, an NGO worker who is recruiting young women in Myanmar for a nursing program in the US; Leo, a paranoid alcoholic and drug addict who loses his job as a pre-school teacher and is sent to a swanky and suspicious rehab facility by his sisters for his blogging about a conspiracy around the Committee stealing our personal information; and Mark, a self-help hack who wrote something inspired once in a drug and alcohol fueled haze and who has become the puppet face of the Committee, a cabal of industrialists and media barons intent on doing exactly what Leo fears. When Leila sees too much in Myanmar and starts snooping, the Committee retaliates against her family, sending her looking for help from Dear Diary, an underground opposition group looking to take down the Committee and protect our private information through guerrilla tactics, secret hideouts, and a weird eye test that assigns you a number. As Leila tries to save her family, Leo and Mark come careening into her path, all of them trying to figure out their place in this new world threatening to take over.
The book is told from four perspectives: Leila, Leo, Mark, and Ned, a CIA-type analyst who pops in for a few chapters. I really like Leila’s story arc. It’s an exciting, compelling, creative, heartfelt whirlwind of a ride. Her interactions with her siblings are particularly affecting and real; the sibling relationships feel familiar not forced. I wanted the entire book to be from her point of view. Or Ned’s. I liked Ned. It’s a shame he only told the story for a couple of chapters. On the other hand, it took me 200 pages to figure out why I should care about Leo and a few dozen (or a hundred) more to figure out why I should care about Mark. Leo, at least, grows on you. Good at heart, he’s just lost control of his life, but he is an intelligent, passionate, and caring person intent on doing good, and by the end, I really enjoyed him as a narrator. Like Leo, Mark is lost and struggling with his addictions. Unlike Leo, Mark just comes across as completely pathetic and lame until about the last 60 pages or so. Shafer tries to create sympathy for Mark by having him emotionally struggle with the fact that he’s a greedy sell-out and glutton for fame who let his nugget of a good idea be corporatized and wrapped up into a shiny, marketable package that no where resembled his original essay. However, Mark goes through the same guilt every chapter with no discernible decision to change. And, again, it took me way too long to understand why I had to put up with his moral and ethical vacillating.
Another small problem I had with the book was some of Shafer’s language, particularly his weird quasi-slang. “Deffo” for “definitely” is the one that sticks out most in my memory. My friend Katie argued that the dweeby slang was primarily used by Mark and was consistent with this character he’s created as he’s bluffing his way through his new world of fame and self-help speaking engagements. Here’s the thing, though: it’s not consistent enough. For such slang to work, you have to commit and really go for full slang usage, peppering it throughout the entire novel. Instead, it is used just enough that I can’t quite tell if it is a character choice or if Shafer really thinks that this is the cool slang the kids use these days and wants to be hip.
The core plot is fantastic, though, as exciting as any high quality Bond film (or spy caper of your preference), and it deals with very real, current themes of information control, sharing, and privacy in an entertaining and focused away. Spanning the globe from Myanmar to Dublin, Portland, and the northern Pacific, the action zooms every which way, picking up and dropping off characters with increasingly zany names (Seymour Butz, Paige Turner, Nicotine Lozenge), and culminating in a thrilling climax full of suspense, intrigue, and even a big chase…
…and then it just ends! The book ends on a giant WTF!!! WHAT HAPPENS??? WTF???? But you know what? Despite my roller coaster of emotions about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I’m hooked. I totally want to read the sequel. Because there has to be one, right? Right?? So I guess Shafer knows what he’s doing after all.