God's Favorite: A Novel
Reviewed by Clay Smith, Fri., March 24, 2000
God's Favorite: A Novelby Lawrence Wright
Simon & Schuster, 356 pp., $24
In one of the many wickedly hilarious episodes of this entertaining novel, the author takes a moment to ponder fate, or at least the fate of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega: "The size and number of a man's enemies say something about him. They are history's yardstick, a way of measuring a man in his time. Where would Nelson be without Napoleon? Lincoln without the Confederacy? No one achieves greatness without struggling against formidable opponents, so in that sense perhaps Tony really was blessed. He had stirred up the most impressive enemies of his era -- the Church, the Colombian mob, and the Americans. He had a lot to be thankful for." Thank god for satire -- it seems to be the only suitable stance for depicting the downfall of Noriega, whose unstable tenure helming the reins of his banana republic seems so destined to be lampooned.
Though he often winks at the reader, Wright is engaged in depicting "the human being behind the mask of power," which is quite an endeavor since the subject is such a goon. From the moment this novel, which is also a Showtime movie starring Bob Hoskins, opens in September 1985, when the body of Panama's most famous revolutionary, Dr. Hugo Spadafora, was found conveniently missing its head, to the end, when the U.S. invaded Panama on December 20, 1989, Noriega is nothing if not megalomaniacal, and he's not always good at it. "You know, all my life people have been saying this to me, that I go too far," Noriega says at one point. "But I keep going and going. And I never get to this place, 'too far,'" or so he thinks. "Too far" is hinted at rather early in God's Favorite in a macabre opening scene in which the residents of a village are transfixed by a golden frog lodged on the side of a large mailbag "like a miser clutching his purse." As it turns out, Spadafora is in that bag. The news that Spadafora was assassinated just prior to his planned march on the capital to make charges against Noriega stirs up political unrest in Panama. In the middle of it all Wright places the bureaucratic but attentive Monseñor Henri-Auguste Morette, the head of the Vatican Embassy in Panama, and his lieutenant Father Jorge, who has to balance his strident repudiation of Noriega's leadership with his church's official stance of neutrality. Wright's eye for detail shines in illuminating the other players: Noriega's deluded mistress Carmen; his power-hungry wife Felicidad; and any number of Noriega's vainglorious and constantly frightened lackeys.
Occasionally, Wright ushers in minor characters like street thug Teo Sánchez in a fashion that seems too opportune. But it's a testament to the success of his novel that when Wright reveals Noriega unfettered, as it were, the reader doesn't feel the need to mimic one of the characters in God's Favorite who comes face-to-face with the general's humanity: "He was intrigued and charmed -- but then he remembered who he was dealing with and quickly turned away."
Lawrence Wright will read from and sign God's Favorite at Barnes & Noble Arboretum on Wednesday, March 29, at 7:30pm. He will also be at a benefit for the Howson Branch Library, which will be held at CC's Coffee House (3110 Windsor) on Sunday, April 2, from 7-8pm.