World Trade, as a concept and as a symbol, has taken a tremendous beating this past year. First with violent demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, then with a series of terrorist attacks in the United States.
But history has demonstrated that the trading impulse among nations is resilient enough to absorb these setbacks and strong enough to repel them in the future.
Eugene Bryan’s sole purpose in life is pleasure. He believes that he is intelligent and cosmopolitan, and he rather likes it that way. But Bryan’s self-image undergoes a dramatic change when the sudden death of a prominent shipping journalist leads an old personal friend to recruit him for a position at the trade magazine, Pacific Freighter.
In his new job, Bryan is suddenly cast into the network of crime and intrigue that supports water-borne commerce. He quickly becomes familiar with the “flags of convenience”-tens of thousands of ocean vessels sailing under assumed countries of origin. These ships represent a significant threat to U.S. national security and global economic dominance, a threat which becomes especially serious in the wake of 9/11.
Having fashioned a fresh persona, Bryan embarks on a frenzied journey of self-realization and discovery.
But will his newfound understanding sustain him after a crushing loss?
Bay Crossings: Is there really a “Pacific Freighter” magazine?
Paul Duclos: No, it’s a composite of several trade publications serving the shipping community. The novel’s protagonist – Eugene Bryan – is a composite of an industry journalist.
BC: You seem to suggest that it’s a pretty glamorous industry, too.
Duclos: Glamorous in the darkest sense, I suppose. Wasn’t Satan the glamorous angel? There isn’t anything very pacific about this, either. Containerized shipping is not a peaceful business.
BC: And Eugene Bryan is not the noblest of men, is he?
Duclos: Clearly, he’s troubled. A vain, homophobic, womanizer always looking for the main chance.
BC: He’s flying his own flag of convenience?
Duclos: Exactly. And he’s able to quickly become an adept business writer because the barriers to entry are so low.
BC: The portrayals of other trade journalists are far from flattering too. Are they all such vulgar opportunists?
Duclos: No worse than journalists you’ll find in other fields of endeavor. Remember, this book takes on the art world, too, and paints a rather bleak picture of misguided humanitarian organizations.
BC: But isn’t the novel sort of an indictment of globalization in general?
Duclos: No. It is an acknowledgement of it. Hardly a ringing endorsement for mass migration,
BC: The back story is really a father/son tale. Both men are going through a sort of mutual recovery after Mrs. Bryan dies in a car accident.
Duclos: Yes, although it’s been fifteen years since that occurred. Eugene is an only child, and had really been spoiled up to that point. His transition into manhood was sudden and violent.
BC: There’s considerable violence in this book, particularly where cars are involved.
Duclos: Yes, a car kills one of the key characters in the first paragraph of the first chapter. Automobiles are often deadly vehicles. When they are not crashing into things, or running people over, they’re used for abductions.
BC: Is there a redemptive message in any of this?
Duclos: We’re at sea at one time or the other…often “sailing dark.” Love conquers all is a reassuring theme. But in the end, one’s faith must be based on something more than that.
BC: Finally, how do you explain the “Cult Classic” status of this book?
Duclos: It might be related to the “cargo-centric” narrative. A cargo cult, after all, is a millenarian system in which adherents perform rituals which they believe will cause a more technologically advanced society to deliver goods. Maybe “Flags” speaks to some of these cultists on some level.
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