Eating with the Enemy
How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack
by Robert Egan
and Kurt Pitzer
St. Martin’s, 400 pp., $25.99
A Young American Framed
for Murder in Nicaragua
by Eric Volz
St. Martin’s, 304 pp., $25.99
What better way is there to see into our national character than to follow some callow Americans as they go among foreigners? Armed with our Yankee pragmatism and idealism, our earnestness, pluck, and love of the underdog, we manage to get ourselves in some interesting scrapes out there.
Robert “Bobby” Egan burned with a desire to change the world precisely because he supported the underdog: namely, himself. This “kid from the wrong side of town” set about defanging the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea so he could teach those elite experts in Washington what a North Jersey burger chef and high school dropout can accomplish when he tries. Thus, do we add him to the long line of American businessmen—Averell Harriman, say, or Armand Hammer—who have adorned themselves in the mantle of statesmen? Of course, when you do diplomacy all by yourself while holding down a full-time job as a restaurateur you don’t try to compete with the State Department’s outreach to front-rank countries. What Egan specialized in was chatting up representatives of isolated regimes—Vietnam, North Korea, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—or, as he calls them, “a bunch of rejects, just like me.” Not being on friendly terms with the United States, he says, means unpopularity in the diplomatic corps, “so when I come along with dinner plans and tickets to the game, it’s tempting.”
Why would one want to be “tempting” to tyrants? It’s a long story, and one that defies some of our expectations. Peace activists tend to be flag-burning types, but not Egan. That is one reason why—aside from general peculiarity—it takes a while to wrap one’s mind around the circumstances and motivations that led him to the exploits he claims in Eating with the Enemy, his memoir written with Kurt Pitzer. One piece of the puzzle is that the author was shut out of exciting ventures early in life. The mobsters in his neighborhood in North Jersey wouldn’t let him in the Mafia (he’s only half Italian) and then his youth kept him from getting drafted and sent to fight Communists in Vietnam. He attached himself to the POW/MIA movement as a way to compensate for missing out on the war and wangled a connection with H. Ross Perot and his coterie of ex-military men. Trying to rescue missing American servicemen in Indochina, a pursuit at once patriotic and counterintuitive, suited him.
It also gave him a taste for dabbling in international affairs. The United Nations headquarters was a convenient drive from his part of New Jersey, and he helped one Vietnamese official he met there to defect. The Vietnamese contacts petered out in the early 1990s—public interest in stranded GIs waned with the warming of U.S. relations with Vietnam—but those contacts had passed along his name to the North Koreans, who called him up in 1993. So he reactivated his private foreign service. Before long he was making trips to the Hermit Kingdom to promote trade with the United States. Sure, North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship; that doesn’t mean you can’t josh with people to break the ice, as when Egan said to a wraithlike member of the starving populace: “You look like you need a good meal.” The man responded: “You look like you ate my meal.”
The motives driving this citizen diplomacy are expressed several different ways over the course of Eating With the Enemy. The psychological, the patriotic, and the financial get mixed together. Just when it occurs to us to doubt the author on whether there are any stranded POWs, living or dead, from the Korean War that he could rescue, he shifts to discussing other goals. These range from heading off nuclear war between the United States and North Korea, to promoting trade between the two countries, to making sure Bobby Egan is first in line to build a barbecue joint in Pyongyang when relations open up.
Naturally enough, his hobby attracted FBI surveillance, and Egan does not hide the fact that he enjoyed the attention. He checked in with U.S. authorities regularly, and if they couldn’t stop him from taking his North Korean friends on hunting and fishing trips, or serving them free meals in his restaurant, they could at least debrief him about what these mysterious men were like. Once, one of the North Koreans posted to U.N. headquarters, a military man named Han, needed dental care. Egan, who had grown close to Han, found a good oral surgeon to treat him. Afterward, Egan delivered the extracted molar to FBI counterintelligence for DNA sampling. Han headed home when his tour of duty ended; it was awful, Egan writes, to have to say goodbye to “my best friend.”
He also liked his second FBI handler. This spelled trouble for the handler, of course: When the young agent, succumbing to the Egan charm, tried to advance one of the Egan schemes—to have the United States purchase North Korea’s nuclear program—the FBI demoted him. Any reader will pity those who cross the path of this “goombah” (his word) diplomat, from the National Security Council experts sent up from Washington to rein him in to the Pennsylvania state senator Egan took with him to Pyongyang to retrieve the rusting U.S.S. Pueblo. (The ship stayed firmly docked on the Taedong River. The North Koreans were only toying with Egan on that one. On most of the other stuff, too.)
Bobby Egan is an ingenuous man—perhaps not as ingenuous as he would like to seem—and his cockeyed-optimist act seems mostly intended to keep us off balance and wondering if he’s kidding. His fighting-Stalinism-with-steaks approach did enable him to talk Pyongyang into sending a women’s soccer team to a competition here. It was a mixed accomplishment, though: Try as he might, he was unable to land the players a commercial endorsement. Gatorade declined after mulling over Egan’s idea for a TV commercial, which would have had a North Korean woman kicking a soccer ball and—to suggest how empowered she is by drinking Gatorade—making the kick look like a nuclear explosion.
As innocents abroad go, the author of Gringo Nightmare is, perhaps, less odd than Bobby Egan. Eric Volz is one of those Americans—our classic literature is full of them—who rub non-Americans the wrong way but don’t realize this until it’s too late. Being of partly Mexican ancestry and speaking excellent Spanish persuaded him that he was appealing to the villagers of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. To them, however, this Jeep-driving Californian was part of a growing foreign contingent that, amid the post-Sandinista development boom in Nicaragua, had intruded on their quiet life on the Pacific coast.
Volz had found San Juan del Sur in his student days, traveling the hemisphere in search of exotic places to go surfing. A Latin American studies major, he emerged from college with the pro-guerrilla biases one picks up in the academy. But he later came to believe that the best way to make a revolution in Central America was not through Marxism but the advancement of business. So he returned to San Juan del Sur in 2004, launching a bilingual magazine to promote “positive social change” while signing on with the local Century 21 office to sell real-estate to retirees from the United States. He had a romance with a local beauty named Doris Jiménez, a budding entrepreneur in her own right. Some in the town looked upon Volz “as too slick or ambitious,” but then again, he writes, “the kind of work ethic that many Americans tend to admire is seen as extreme in other cultures.”
Doris Jiménez was brutally raped and murdered in 2006. When tragedy struck, Volz prodded the police to get moving and track down her killer, but such treatment at the hands of an American surfer-turned-yuppie who had, until recently, been the victim’s lover did not go over well. Before the sun had set on her funeral, Eric Volz was in handcuffs. His alibi—witnesses and phone records proving that he was far away in Managua when the crime took place—was ignored, and during his arraignment, while being walked from the jail to the courthouse, Volz was chased by a crowd screaming “Asesino!”
Anti-gringo sentiment in these parts of the world is nothing surprising, but putting a gringo in the dock came in especially handy for those arch anti-yanquis, the Sandinistas, who were just then staging a political comeback. Doris Jiménez’s mother, a Sandinista loyalist, had the party’s help in trucking in anti-Volz mobs to the various court proceedings, and from inside La Modelo, Nicaragua’s maximum security prison, Volz watched on television as President Daniel Ortega was inaugurated.
“I don’t think I ever felt my gringoness as strongly or as fearfully as I did on that day,” he writes. Sandinista judges were a problem: At strategic points they would disappear on long vacations, dragging out the appeal of his 30-year prison sentence by several months. Even after his release was finally in the works, they outdid themselves by “losing” the Doris Jiménez case file. (It turned up a week later on the desk of a leftist appeals judge.) To counter the attacks in the Sandinista press, Volz’s American-based legal team helped him secure the aid of important Nicaraguans, including a former leader of the contras.
There were many heroes, American and Nicaraguan, who helped bring about the reversal of his conviction and get him back home to the United States—especially the Nicaraguan judge Roberto Rodriguez, whose vote to reverse made him powerful enemies in the government and among Sandinista supporters. And Volz says that his sufferings—a year spent in mosquito-infested, dirty, and dangerous prison cells—have deepened him. Let us hope so.
Lauren Weiner is a writer in Baltimore.