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A Gathering at the River.

A Gathering at the River. Fred Godsey. Markgraf Publications, $28.95. Poor Fred Godsey. Some guys never could get it right. They always believed it when the message from State Department Personnel was passed down saying, "Come quickly, we have an assignment for you we think you're going to like." Of course, just as dependably, they'd find Personnel had something in mind along the lines of, "You take this post in Chad for now and we'll make sure you get something good later." And after three years in Chad, sure enough, those same guys were on the boat to Burma. And the smart guys always seemed to end up in Paris.

I think Godsey must have been one of the gullible ones. He had such bad assignments, Personnel must have had him on a special list. Sort of the "Save for Fred Godsey" list. I'm surprised I didn't read in his book that he kept getting unsolicited bottles of champagne from anonymous donors in the European division. There can be only a couple of explanations as to how Godsey got stung with off-beat locales so many times. Either he is too nice a guy, or he knew what he was doing.

As you read A Gathering at the River - a collection of fiction stories rooted in Godsey's foreign service experience - it all starts to piece together. Sure Fred Godsey knew what he was doing. Who needs another book of memoirs from Paris? Tell us what's going on in Burma. Or Belem. Or Budapest. And that's what this book is all about. It's the seamy side of the world, where saints seldom win. While the future of Europe was being debated and duly recorded in London, Moscow, and Berlin, the stories were just as compelling at other spots around the globe. And for once we had someone there to jot them down.

Godsey's yarns range across the planet, from the dank and musty backwaters of 1940s Brazil to the rundown bars of Asuncion, Paraguay. He tosses in a few stories of communist brutality in Cold War Hungary. In every case, if there was local color to be found, Godsey's creative memory paints a picture of it.

Some of his tales relate cultural misadventures, such as the story of the California religious order that undertook a goodwill mission to Burma, The members' intent was to buy handicrafts for sale in the States. It was a noble gesture made with the idea of both supporting peasant craftsmen in Burma and raising money for the church in America. After butting heads with a number of Burmese customs, the rather straight-laced delegation concluded a deal and headed for home. But when the boxes were opened by Customs on arrival, instead of the expected trinkets, inspectors found hundreds of opium pipes and pornographic carvings. The Heavenly Tidings Mission almost landed in jail.

In a more serious vein, Godsey chillingly relates the terrible days of the communist takeover of Hungary. This includes an episode where Godsey's autobiographical character plots to kill a secret police agent who murdered a woman the real Godsey loved.

Like many other faceless State Department employees, Godsey just did his job, quietly making the paperwork flow. But this book indicates that he was different from his peers in the most important way. Here was one guy too busy with what was going on in the streets to be clinking cocktails after work with the rest of the embassy crowd.

In my nine years of overseas postings, I found bar-hopping with other Americans was often as local as most staffers got. Sometimes the closest thing to honest reporting you'd find was a rehash of the local papers, done over morning coffee in embassy offices.

But it seemed to me there was always at least one guy, probably somewhere down in the bowels of the visa or passport section, who just loved to hang out at the local hole-in-the-wall instead of the Marriott. And darned if he wouldn't rather talk about bullfighting instead of getting an office with a window. He was the one who could always tell you what was really going on.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Semple, Bing
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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