An American hedge fund analyst is sent to appraise an African mine that is controlled by a brutal warlord. When the financier is kidnapped by child soldiers and dragged into their bloody rebellion, he becomes entangled in their struggle and must choose between claiming the immense wealth he worked so hard for, or throwing it away and risking his life for a slim chance to save theirs.
Michael G. Keller is a filmmaker. Toy Soldiers is his first novel. For more about Keller, visit his website.
Toy Soldiers is a compelling read in the way a B movie might entice a viewer to keep watching to determine if it is campy or simply bad and having determined it is bad to wonder if it can possibly get worse. On the last point, this story does not disappoint.
The premise of Keller’s story is that greed of global corporations is the cause of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s humanitarian crisis, specifically the demand for coltan, a metallic ore used in electronic equipment. That would be fair as far as it goes, though it ignores refugees from the Rwandan genocide and other tribal wars that have affected stability in DRC for decades and predate demand for coltan. Further, ending all consumption of conflict minerals would not starve tribal warlords of funds. They can and do turn to agricultural products, extortion and other means.
If Toy Soldiers is intended to portray the scope of the DRC conflict, it misinforms. If it is intended to show the human cost through the eyes of its victims, it fails. None of the characters are credible as their actions and emotions are rendered as caricatures by Keller’s puerile writing style.
“He pummeled the mercenary with his pistol, looking him right in the eye as he battered his face into mush.”
“The absent-eyed mercenary spotted Sebu and gasped. Sebu shot his face off.”
“The mercenaries torched huts and dragged young girls, kicking and screaming, into the jungle to satisfy their beastly urges.”
“The children looked up in horror, at the colossus looming over them like a nightmare. He blotted out the sun. They tried to dodge around him, but he swatted them both to the dirt with the back of his ogreish hand.”
The following sentence describes food of boys trying to survive in the jungle and exemplifies the writer’s lackadaisical regard for accuracy.
“Cassava root was pure starch and empty calories, with virtually no nutritional content.”
Starch itself is a nutrient, providing calories needed to avoid starvation. According to “nutritiondata”web site, cassava contains: vitamins--A,C,E K, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folate, B12, pantothenic acid, choline, and betanine, along with minerals--calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium.
Inept handling of a humanitarian crisis aside, the novel is an affront to English literacy.
“Their vacuous stomachs screamed and pleaded for more,” Unless Keller actually wants to say the stomachs were devoid of intellectual value, I assume he means “empty.”
“Moses’ men leapt up on the truck bed and plucked the new recruits down onto the dirt.” One plucks up, not down. Confused with plunked?
In a limousine, “The general sat unnervingly close by Kaufman’s side, with menacing bodyguards lurking across from them.” Lurk means to wait in hiding as though to ambush, difficult to do in the back of a limo.
“The setting sun splattered across the sky like a fried egg”
“Exhaustion finally hit him like an avalanche.”
“Perforated like Swiss cheese, the man’s blood spattered all over him.” (How does one perforate blood?)
“Lantern light lapped against his eye sockets, only making him look angrier.”
“The birds took flight, frantically flapping…”
“…they ceaselessly swallowed shots” and also “ranted at a rickety podium…”
After a gun battle, “The children…giggled with glee as they sprinted away, through the twists and turns of the wilderness…”
“He wasn’t near death – he had somehow passed it, shuffling onward like a headless chicken.”
“The currency trader pried his stunned eyes up from his screen to force a truckling smile.”
“We haven’t found him yet, sir,” the soldier truckled.
“He had felt flurries of air from several of the rounds whizzing by his head.” Snow flurries, leaves flurry; shock waves made by bullets do not flurry.
“…reached for his AK, but a grizzled foot pinned it to the earth.” Foot covered in gray hair, an old Sasquatch?
“Sebu’s eyes were glassy and delirious with fever.” Delirious eyes?
Clichés ad nauseum:
“The orphans jumped out of their skin.”
“Bang –a rifle accidentally discharged and scared the boys out of their skins.”
“Excuse me,” he called down in a meek voice. Even that made the trekkers leap out of their skin…”
“You’re alive!” Lumumba exclaimed, literally jumping for joy.
“There was no corner of the market free of monkey business – nothing new under the sun.”
“The markets were so fraught with sound and fury, but ultimately signified nothing…“
It may be unkind to suppose the writer is trying to imply wisdom through cynicism (and plagiarism). Markets determine how much I pay for a gallon of gasoline or a pound of bacon. To me that’s not nothing.
“The upswings were a drunken orgy of celebration, while the drops were punctuated with melodrama and teeth gnashing.”
Why? Surely traders in a hedge fund would hold both long and
“The corporate animal fed on cash and it grew fatter so it could swallow more
and more; and it even excreted a little sewage, so people would buzz around like flies, clamoring to do its bidding for a few stray droppings.”
No further comment but an apology for the many risible bits of egregious writing that I have left out.
In an afterward, Keller wrote, “Eagle-eyed editor Nicholas Morine helped trim the fat and punch up the action.” Mr. Morine must then be held equally accountable for the result.
In February 1967 at the age of nineteen years and six months, I debarked the MSTS Gordon onto an LST and landed in Da Nang as a member of the 3rd Marine division. I find this novel’s cartoonish depictions of real-world horror viscerally offensive. As stocks editor (now retired) of Bloomberg’s Tokyo bureau I interviewed analysts, strategists, traders and economists and attest that no such person as Kaufman has ever existed. He is described as both an analyst and financier. Analysts have deep and current knowledge with narrow scope. Financiers hire analysts. I am the author of Dollar Down and Tokyo Enigma, have a humble appreciation for good writing and disdain only for writers too lazy to study the craft.
Anyone interested in the DRC, might read Jason K Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. It was published in 2012, but remains an enlightening work. Those following current debate over the Dodd-Frank Act might watch what happens with Section 1502 dealing with DRC conflict minerals. It has been both praised and damned.
Rating: * One Star
Reviewed by: Sam Waite
Approximate word count: 45-50,000 words