The Quiet American.

Sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.

Graham Greene’s works are often divided into two categories which I believe were his own suggestions: his serious novels and his “entertainments,” the latter usually coming in the form of spy novels. My favorite Greene works seem to be the ones that blend elements of both styles; while The Heart of the Matter is probably his best-regarded work (it’s appears in the “second 100” in The Novel 100, made the TIME 100, and was #40 on the Modern Library 100), my favorite Greene work is Our Man in Havana, an entertainment that also satirizes the Cold War maneuvering of the great powers. The Quiet American (#67 on the Guardian 100) also straddles the line between the two forms, with a plot built around international intrigue during the Vietnamese war for independence that also poses two different questions around moral relativism.

Alden Pyle, the “quiet American” of the title, was, in life, anything but quiet; the title is twice ironic, both because Pyle was a talker and meddler and also because he’s quiet on a more permanent level when the book opens. The story then rolls backwards, told by English reporter Thomas Fowler, who recalls his first sighting of the American economic attaché:

I had seen him last September coming across the square towards the bar of the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart. With his gangly legs and his crew-cut and his wide campus gaze he seemed incapable of harm.

Fowler becomes caught in two nets woven by Pyle, one as Pyle attempts to steal Fowler’s mistress (Fowler is married to a woman who won’t grant him a divorce, whereas Pyle is willing to marry Fowler’s mistress), the other as it becomes clear that Pyle is up to no good in his clandestine duties for an ostensibly economic mission in Vietnam. Fowler’s moral conundrum – what to do as he realizes Pyle might be dangerous – is further complicated when Pyle saves his life during a guerrilla attack on a tower where they seek refuge after their car runs out of gas.

Greene has Fowler eventually make a decision – circumstances all but force him to choose – about Pyle, but avoids casting Fowler as any sort of hero or even protagonist by making him a serial adulterer and a user of (at least) his Vietnamese mistress while having him owe his life to Pyle along the way. Even when Fowler does act, it’s passive, almost a hands-free approach that robs him of the benefit (or satisfaction?) of making a clear, morally unclouded decision.

Layered on top of the Fowler/Pyle plot is the broader and less morally ambiguous question of what the hell France and especially the United States were doing in Vietnam in the first place. Pyle stands in for the domino theory foreign policy of the United States; he’s an idealistic innocent, full of ideas he learned in school or from books (largely from his ideological idol, York Harding, of whom Fowler says, “He gets hold of an idea and then alters every situation to fit the idea”) and devoid of both real-world experience and any practical understanding of the people and culture of the country he’s supposed to save. Phuong, Fowler’s paramour and later the object of Pyle’s affection, represents Vietnam in a less than flattering light – naïve, opium-addicted, in need of protection (according to Pyle) or of economic assistance (according to Phuong’s sister), controlled by outside forces, inscrutable to both Fowler and Pyle.

It is nearly impossible to read the book now without seeing it as a powerful indictment of the U.S. war in Iraq, even though it was written fifty years prior to the 2003 invasion. (The 2004 edition, marking the centennial of Greene’s birth, includes a foreword by Robert stone that makes this connection explicit.) Greene inveighs against the involvement of a western nation in a part of the world it doesn’t know or understand where there is no direct relation to the western countries’ national interests, which parallels many arguments against U.S. involvement in Iraq. Greene oversimplifies or just misses one major argument for indirect engagement – forcing the Soviets to ramp up military spending on multiple engagements increased the strain on their economy, and may have led to the regime’s collapse in the 1980s – but is on stronger ground when he argues against grafting western mores on to non-western cultures, or when arguing that the assumption that our interests and those of local people in these foreign countries are aligned well enough to justify any military action we take or military support we provide.

I’m off to California this evening to see a high school showcase event at the MLB Academy in Compton (insert N.W.A. joke here) but should be free for one dinner in Los Angeles, so if anyone has a must-hit suggestion (sushi is always welcome – I could go to Koi, but it’s a bit out of my way) I’m all ears.


  1. Bring a jacket, KL–third straight day of rain in Santa Barbara and I’d assume it’s the same in LA. This place is sort of expensive but has good sushi appetizers, just a few minutes north of LAX:
    And I’ve had great lamb khorma just a few exits south of the airport here:

    Safe travels–oh, and stay away from the color blue. And red. Yellow’s no good either. You’ll be safe in earth tones until about 9:00 pm, after that it’s hot pink all the way until morning.

  2. It’s pricey, but Providence is always a winner.

  3. If you’re looking for a more chowhound-y experience, my favorite Korean BBQ place in the US is in LA:

    This is also supposed to be great, but I’ve never been; it’s a taco truck that makes Korean BBQ tacos. (In general, Koreatown in LA is great):

  4. The Third Man is one of my favorite movies but outside of that I have never explored Graham Greene’s work. I should probably change that.

    It has been colder than usual in LA so bring a jacket but when I say cold I mean 50. I’m not a sushi eater so I can’t help you there but for casual burger and beer try 8 oz. Burger Bar on Melrose go with the smaller, tastier Melrose burger or the ridiculously delicious short rib grilled cheese. There’s a good selection of beer on tap and they make a better than average Manhattan. It’s the neighborhood spot of choice for my wife and I.

  5. Hey Keith if you are going to be Compton area, you should try Torimatsu in Gardena, it is just about the best Yakitori place in the area.

    Right next to Torimatsu is Kanpachi Sushi, another great place to get sushi.

    Both places are pretty small, but have great atmospheres.

  6. The Quiet American’s 2002 film adaptation was decent (although I speak as someone who has not read the novel, which almost always alters perception of a filmed work), although Brendan Fraser was a bit of a weak link. Michael Caine is pretty good in it though.

  7. I hope I am not too late – but if you get to go to one Sushi place in L.A., go to . . .


    Its on the west side near Pico and Sawtelle.

  8. Also –

    I know people have suggested Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles to you. Do yourself a service and eat there if you can. There is one in Long Beach I believe, and who knows, you may run into NWA while you are there!!

  9. Briggs – I’ve been to Sasabune (excellent) and Roscoe’s (meh) on past trips out here.

    Don: Torimatsu is closed Sundays, I guess, and Kanpachi was … I wouldn’t say terrible, but I didn’t like it at all.

    I’m going to Versailles tonight, a rec from Joe Sheehan. I’ll save all of these recs for the next time I’m out here, though. I’m kind of tired of hitting the same Long Beach spots (other than Koi) every August.

  10. So what did you think of Versailles? I have had mixed experiences depending on the location I’ve visited.

  11. Oh ya –

    Hope you enjoyed it!!

    (You have to really love gravy to fully appreciate Roscoe’s I think)

  12. Connecticut Mike

    For everyone who loves Vince with the Shamwow, there was a fascinating segment with Billy Mays on the Adam Carolla Radio Show this morning where Billy essentially says that Vince ripped off one of Billy’s products when he created the Shamwow. Billy Mays then challenges Vince to a pitch-off. Here is the link to download the podcast:

    It is the segment labeled “More with Billy Mays”. Fairly amusing stuff.

  13. Versailles in Encino is great fast food. Order the roast chicken and get it within five minutes.

    you need to use the gravy with the waffle at Roscoe’s.

  14. A Greene book I thought was a real treat was “The Tenth Man,” which he originally wrote as a film treatment, and was only published as a novel posthumously, iirc.

    It’s not “The Heart of the Matter” – not a great novel – but a very enjoyable read.

  15. John – I agree, it’s more of a novella but it’s very good. I think it was actually the first Greene work I read, back in January of ’02, right after finishing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

  16. David in Toledo

    I read The Quiet American in 1967 and it helped me transition to an antiwar understanding of why we and our puppets could not maintain domination of South Vietnam.

    Vietnam had enormous cost, in all ways, to us. I don’t think it cost the Russians much at all, or had anything to do with the collapse of the USSR 15 years after Vietnam unified. The USSR’s misadventure in Afghanistan, which they blundered into after the fall of our Iranian Shah lit the fire of Islamic fundamentalism — that foreign involvement accelerated the USSR’s collapse.


  1. […] The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Full review. A cynical work, surprising for Greene, that offers a severe criticism of the Vietnam War from a […]

  2. […] The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Full review. A cynical work, surprising for Greene, that offers a severe criticism of the Vietnam War from a […]