Thursday, March 24, 2016

Epstein's Pancake by Bjarne Rostaing - #review #interview

It's the end of the Reagan years, with Iran-contra still smoldering, and G.H.W. Bush looking like a winner. Rob Price is a Nam vet with attitude who's lost his Wall Street job and takes one with a small obscure government agency. Something's going on, and before he finds out what it is, a fellow agent is killed and Rob disappears himself with a satchel of black money. When he turns whistleblower he finds himself with a corporate tiger by the tail and a Eurasian martial artist girlfriend that other guys envy.



Reagan.  HW.  Iran-Contra.  North.  Viet Nam.  Wow, those names take me back!

I appreciate the fact that sometimes governments have to do things that rank-and-file 'good citizens' might find distasteful.  The bitter disappointment comes in when it seems that a (vast?) majority of our representatives (US/World) are in power as much or more for themselves as for their constituents - and are willing to protect or improve their perceived situation - no matter the cost to others!

Historical fiction that highlights the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) folks against a backdrop of a famous event has quickly become a favorite of mine.  I can think of no better example of this than Bjarne Rostaing's political thriller, Epstein's Pancake.

At first, the title threw me.  How could any book with the word 'pancake' in the title be a thriller?  Heretofore any book I read whose title included the work 'pancake' usually was something like "101 of the Food Channel's Favorite Pancake Recipes".  Epstein isn't even mentioned in the first two-thirds of the story and his pancake doesn't make an entrance until later.  And don't even unpack your syrup because there will be no taste-testing today.

Actually, the pancake refers to an emerging technology that most of the powers that be in the world were ready to bribe, blackmail, steal or kill to get their hands on - before anyone else.

Enter Rob Price, a veteran of the Viet Nam era, who was recruited to be a courier for a small, unnamed (at the time) government agency.  (If someone, someday approaches you with the same offer, you better hope your bicycle is heavily armored and has a few weapons caches, because you will not just be transporting packets of information from one spot to another.)  

The security agencies (aka spies) of several nations are on Rob from almost day one.  His brushes with death become closer and closer as the book goes on, and it is only his professional paranoia, make that skills of observation, that keep him alive.  What Price endures in the book makes it hard to understand how anyone with a conscience would want to be a spy.  The place where you live has to be your little secret.  No friends, nor even co-workers can know its location.  The people with whom you work are almost certainly 'more' than the public face they present - and you really don't know from one day to the next who might turn on you.

All this ethically messy morality of the Iran-Contra era is masterfully written up by Bjarne Rostaing.  Having lived through that time, I can honestly say that he pegs the history perfectly.  I became more and more intellectually and psychologically involved as the chapter numbers grew, and experienced (nearly) the same emotions Rob did at each adverse event that happened to him.

I read a lot of historical fiction and cozy mystery books, where the endings are 99% 'Happily Ever After'.  That is not the case in this book, but then life is rarely all hearts and flowers either.  This story could easily play out in real life.

If you enjoyed the 'Jack Ryan' series of books and movies, or anything with the name 'John le Carre' attached to it, you will enjoy Epstein's Pancake.



Bjarne Rostaing was an editor at the SoHo Weekly News, won a First Place AFI Award for a sports video and worked with Uma Thurman in Kiss Daddy Goodnight. As a sports writer, he exposed the 1984 US Olympic blood doping scandal in Sports Illustrated. His previous books include Breeders (St. Marks Press), Phantom of the Paradise with Brian DePalma (Dell) and Bill Walton's Book of Bicycling (Bantam). He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.



1.  What made you decide to the Iran-Contra backdrop in Epstein's Pancake?

I think the mess we’re in today comes out of it, going back back to the arms-for-hostages deal. The extent of the corruption and cover-up were unique. By comparison, Watergate was clean, politicians rose above party lines, the system worked, and Nixon was gone. Ten years later it didn’t, at all. Those contras were a nasty bunch – allies of a brutal dictator we supported. CIA stopped at nothing, traded cocaine for arms.

We were also doing extremely illegal business with Iran. When Amiram Nir (the key Israeli), was assassinated after threatening to blow the whistle, the stench was unbelievable, and it went far up into the administration. Secretary of State Schultz was in a blind rage, but Bush 43 was lifetime CIA, and agency head for a while and managed it. John Poindexter, a brilliant man, had to be pardoned by Bush, along with many others, plus those pardoned earlier. Iran-contra set a tone for the election of ’88, which is the start of my book. The Bush/Dan Rather TV confrontation said it all -- Rather was old-school, did his homework and had the goods. Bush screamed at him as if journalists whose facts got in the way were contemptible slime.

2. Music.

Before I started writing, it shaped my life – I spent decades trying to be a horn player. Now I listen to everything, and I’m more concerned with quality than what kind of music it is. Led Zep, Satie, Stones, Mozart, Thelonious Monk, Bird, Bach. String quartets especially.

3.  If you could invent any writer from history to your house for supper and conversation, whom would you invite and what would you discuss?

I would not have the balls to waste their time. The list of writers I respect is endless, but what would I say?

“Do you roll out of bed hangover-and-all and start writing, Mr. Faulkner?” … “How did you manage to have all those affairs at once when you were dying of TB, Mr. Camus?” … “I keep trying but I just can’t finish your book, Mr. Proust.” ... "How did you write a vast and comic masterpiece on your death bed waiting for a replacement liver that never came, Mr. Bolanos?"

4.  Who are your other favorite writers?

The list is endless. I like Burdett’s current Bangkok sex and crime series, and admire his style. Pungent and clear.

5.  How do you handle bad reviews?

I reviewed for Kirkus, so I know the game. What can you do? Whitman had the best plan – he wrote most of them himself.

6.  Do you outline your work before starting or just sit down and write what comes to mind?

Both – it’s a messy process. I try to save the parts that have the most buzz, and build off them.

7.  Do you prefer traditional or independent publishing?

I bailed on my publisher years ago when we didn’t see eye to eye. I liked 20th century publishing but what I see now is people who are more concerned with promoting themselves via social media, which I totally fucking detest, rather than actually writing.

8.  If you could go back to a period of your life and change the way things happened, would you do so and why?

Sure, wouldn’t anyone? But it just cain’t be did. Mainly I’m concerned with people that I hurt, and of course the squandered opportunities.

9.  Do you speak any other languages?

If I did I’d probably be somewhere else.

10. What's next for Bjarne Rostaing, author?

Art crime. I once ran a gallery in Soho, which is now a kind of mall full of tourists. It was pretty light-hearted until a seriously hot painting showed up and I got to see the underside of that world.


(Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book from the author and publishers in exchange for an objective review.)

This book helps me fulfill the following 2016 Reading Challenges:
-2016 GoodReads Challenge
-2016 52 Books in 52 Weeks
-2016 Literary Loners Reading Challenge
-2016 New (to me) Authors Reading Challenge
-2016 Read Harder Challenge (politics)

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