No Way Out

Well-Founded Fear
By Tom LeClair. 
243 pp. Dunkirk, N.Y.
Olin Frederick. $21.95.

by Andrew Santella
New York Times Book Review, October 8, 2000

Casey Mahan, the heroine of Tom LeClair's new novel, is an American attorney working in the Athens office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. An examiner of Kurdish applicants for asylum, she spends her days listening to stories of terror and sifting evidence to make decisions that may mean life or death for those across her desk. 

Mahan is supposed to be an objective evaluator, a judge with power over people in pitiable straits. ''Always we were in the dark,'' one Kurd writes on her application, describing being smuggled into Greece below deck of a ship. ''Well-Founded Fear'' is the story of how Mahan finds herself similarly adrift and clueless, and how, betrayed by her own sympathies, she ends up on the run and in danger. By the time she pauses to ask herself, in distress, ''What do you know for sure?'' any pretense to Solomonic wisdom has eroded. Her response is a tellingly short list of facts. 

Recently made partner in her Cincinnati law firm, Mahan has taken a leave to work for the United Nations. Single and uninvolved, she thinks of it as her alternative to maternity leave, her ''baby year.'' It is clear to the reader from the beginning of this novel, though, that things have already gone awry for Mahan. 

Mahan has befriended a Kurdish applicant for refugee status named Ziba Mamozin, who impressed Mahan with her strength after torture at the hands of the Turkish police. Mahan lands Mamozin a job as a translator, and the two spend their off hours exploring Athens, while taking pains to keep their friendship secret. The real trouble starts when Mamozin asks Mahan to intervene on behalf of her brother, who is imprisoned in Turkey on charges of treason. As a consequence of her actions on behalf of Mamozin's brother, she is herself drawn into a world of international terror. 

The novel's title refers to the standard set by the United
Nations for determining refugee status: applicants must demonstrate ''well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.'' But LeClair is also concerned with a larger, more varied inventory of fears, phobias and dread. Thus Mahan, a young American professional troubled by acrophobia, encounters a middle-aged Kurdish widow who believes herself to be hexed by the evil eye. To figure out what to do about the woman's application, Mahan goes to an English-language bookstore to research fear in various cultures, from the Serbs to the Masai of Tanzania. She decides to reject the woman's application.

''Well-Founded Fear'' is LeClair's second novel, but he may be best known for ''In the Loop,'' his study of Don DeLillo's fiction. This novel shares some features with DeLillo's fictional world: Jesuit-educated protagonists, an appreciation for jargon, a preoccupation with terrorism. ''Well-Founded Fear'' is a workmanlike novel that introduces the uninformed to the plight of the Kurds, who, we are dutifully told, are ''the world's oldest refugees.'' It also offers insight into the peculiar logic of Mahan's job at the United Nations. But it fails to deliver on other counts. Mahan's reasons for moving by herself across an ocean are never adequately explored. And too often the dialogue is wooden. (Here is Mahan on hearing Mamozin's brother has been charged with treason: ''Jesus, no. Not treason.'' Mamozin: ''Yes, treason.'') 

Mahan tells her story in documentary fashion, in the language of bureaucracy. She organizes her narrative -- her testimony, really -- like a refugee's file. Supplemented by questionnaires, interviews, letters of recommended action, her narrative appeals to ''laws and rules, facts and acts, grounds.'' 

If Mahan becomes the asylum seeker, readers are asked to take her place behind the evaluator's desk, to hear her appeal, to gauge her reliability, to judge her actions. ''My motives are still mysterious to me,'' she concludes. Her testimony may leave an evaluator feeling sympathetic but unsatisfied.