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review: The Amateur American

Book Review: “The Amateur American”, by J. Saunders Elmore

Three Rivers Press, 2009

ISBN 978-0-307-45287-0

Trade paperback, $15.00

303 pages


Reviewed by D. L. Parker

Contains some spoilers

I don’t like to quote other reviews about a book even if I think my fellow reviewers are wrong. That’s because there is really no wrong in a review. A review should be, purely and simply, one person’s honest and personal reaction to a book. Unless the reviewer sets out to maliciously slander─or, conversely, flatter─an author for less-than-ethical reasons, the opinion should stand for what it is: one person’s simple reaction.

But in the case of The Amateur American, I have to say: all the reviewers who described this book as a thriller are dead wrong. They could hardly be more wrong.

What this book is, instead, is a psychological study, less Hitchcock than the Marquis de Sade. This is about corruption of the soul. This is how a man starts out as a petty con, and ends up a murderer.

Jeffrey Delanne escapes America after a string of bad check misdemeanors into a teaching assistant job in France. He’s not making much money, but it would probably stretch if he weren’t drinking it away at a local watering hole. Of course his job has frustrations: the pretty students who flaunt temptation he really should (and of course doesn’t) avoid; rampant anti-Americanism from the glib and hoity-toity French; a shameless fellow teaching assistant whose persistent attentions he despises.

He’s spent his cash and maxed his credit card when Dreyfus, a mysterious teacher at the Lycee, offers a chance to make some dough. Delanne, dithering in doubt and swinging like a weathervane, nevertheless takes him up on his offer.

And it’s the first step into the abyss. Delanne meets a wise old Arab man who needs a good English speaker. At least, that’s what he says he wants.

But step by inexorable step, the ground slips out from under Delanne’s feet. First he’s asked to interrogate an imprisoned man. When the interrogation stalls, the Arab’s bodyguard beats up the victim. Delanne is sickened─but he carries on.

The next interrogation, Delanne does the beating. Suddenly he discovers the thrill of power. When a weak man can bust a strong man in the chops with impunity, it feels good.

Soon no one’s pretending Delanne’s in the picture for his English speaking skills. Soon he’s up to his neck in crooked cops, good cops, left-wing radical students with militant agendas, the poisoning of a Lycee administrator, and a few more murders. Everyone he comes into contact with turns out to have a hidden agenda.

But Delanne still can’t figure out why he was ever brought into the picture─until the end, and its shocking conclusion. There, he finds out firsthand just how far a rat will go when it’s trapped…

We’re supposed to believe this story ends well, but of course, it can’t. Once a man discovers a taste for abuse─giving it, and receiving it─it’s hard to believe riding off into the sunset ends in happy ever after.

As Delanne knows, wherever we go, we take ourselves with us. So, will Delanne find his redemption? Read the book and decide for yourself. You might find it sobering.

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