In the Kingdom of Men

  • Kim Barnes
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 320 pp.

Think "Mad Men" in the Arabian Desert, as an Oklahoma-bred woman accompanies her husband to an oil-company job in the 1960s.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

From the first pages of In the Kingdom of Men, narrator Virginia “Gin” Mitchell is an outcast, unlike anyone else she knows. Raised by a fire-and-brimstone grandfather in small-town Oklahoma, she listens to his sermons and realizes she can tell big lies and get away with it. “You’re damned determined, aren’t you?” her future husband, Mason McPhee, asks her early on. “Maybe just damned I thought, but not a single cell of my body believed it was true.” The fundamentalist world of Oklahoma in the late 1950s seems to be stuck in a time warp. There is almost an entire absence of popular culture,  and the descriptions have a dreamy mythical quality.

Twenty pages in, though, the scene shifts dramatically. Gin runs away with Mason McPhee and loses the baby she is expecting. When Mason finds a job with Aramco, the two are transplanted to Saudi Arabia. “No trees, no mountains, just the horizon ribboned with clouds that seemed to smoke right off the desert floor and into the sapphire sky.”

Gin must adapt to luxurious air-conditioned quarters with marble floors, to a gardener and a houseboy who cooks delicious meals and to life in a compound, complete with swimming club. She finds her Indian houseboy, Yesh, and the Bedouin driver, Abdullah, particularly intriguing and befriends them both.

The depiction of life on an American compound in Saudi Arabia feels absolutely authentic, with its bird-in-a-gilded-cage quality. Barnes was raised as a Pentecostal fundamentalist, and her aunt and uncle lived on the Aramco compound in the 1960s. The novel is inspired by their experience.

You feel for Mrs. Virginia McPhee with too much time on her hands. She folds and refolds towels like her mother taught her, and remembers her mother baking pies. But because her mother died when she was 7, such memories seem peculiarly distant to carry such weight in her foreign life. I would have liked to read a bit more of the out-of-her-depth culture shock than this.

Other wives on the compound draw her into their circle. Candy Fullerton, a catty Texan, is keen to show Gin the ropes. She should take the lady’s limo for shopping trips from Abqaiq to  Dharahan and be careful not to show much skin. She also might like to join the Ladies Golf Club, Candy suggests.

Gin is having none of it. Instead, she befriends Ruthie Doucet, the loud-mouthed cocktail-drinking wife of an illiterate foreman. “You take a bunch of healthy men and women, fence them up in the middle of the desert, throw in some sadiqi juice, and see what happens. It’s like Peyton Place around here,” Ruthie observes. “The trick is learning how to spend your time so that it doesn’t spend you.”

While their husbands are away for long stretches, Ruthie takes Gin on reckless adventures into the market square. They also laze around the pool working on their tans, smoking, drinking and talking about their husbands, who will take them straight to the top. Think Mad Men in the Arabian Desert.

When the men return, Ruthie’s husband, Lucky, talks about his background like an authentic hillbilly. “Ten years old, got my first job skinning gators for a bohunk named Pohanko. You ever smell gator guts? Smells like pig shit and I did too.”

But now Lucky has it made, getting rich off Saudi oil, and he doesn’t think much of the locals. “I’ll tell you this. If they don’t like it, they can get on their camels and ride right back into that desert. All the prayers in the world won’t get that oil out of the ground. This here is our Mecca.”

In the Kingdom of Men is a story of American corruption, ignorance and greed, and a feisty girl who wants to know the locals. She reads and takes photographs of them.  There’s a lovely scene where she bathes with a Bedouin girl, and a memorable moment when a swarm of locusts descends upon the compound. During the swarm, Yash, Mason, Abdullah and Gin sit around telling stories “like in The Decameron.” This reference struck me as too sophisticated for the likes of Gin McPhee, and herein lies a problem.

A lot of set personal narratives and interesting observations seem assigned to convenient mouthpieces that don’t always fit the characters. It happens not only with Gin. Mason McPhee waxes philosophical on the subject of mercy, while Yash and Abdullah offer views on politics, oppression and history.

Barnes wants to write about women as second-class citizens, but Gin McPhee’s modern attitude toward the foreign men in this story seems implausible. Here she is talking with Abdullah about the injustices they both suffer:

Abdullah’s eyes took on new focus. “Have you been denied sweet water?”

I met his gaze. “Have you been told that you can’t leave the camp because you’re a woman?”

“I can’t live inside camp because I’m an Arab,” he said. “I can’t drive to your tent because I’m a girl,” I said, “and you men won’t allow it.” I bunched my fists into my armpits. “I hate that word, allow.”

At other times she is clumsy and reckless. Not only is she bad at lying (while in childhood she was brilliant at it), she is also indiscreet with some dangerous knowledge she comes upon ― and it gets her in serious trouble. When Gin McPhee behaves badly, I think we’re meant to be on her side. I, for one, was not.

The truth about these times was probably far more nuanced. I strongly doubt that Middle Eastern men in the 1960s would see anything resembling themselves in the experience of an American woman. Yash might have made a more believable narrator. His outsider’s perspective on Saudi and American culture and his access to the gossip of other houseboys would have made for a more credible narrative.

Barnes has a richly evocative setting. She draws you into a clever plot and sees it through to the end. I have no doubt that there’s an uncomfortable truth at the heart of this story of Aramco, and of the relationship between America and Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, there is rather less truth at the heart of her characters.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, who teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker and has published stories, under Amanda Holmes, in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone.

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