by Jeffrey Vollmer (Estonia 1997-99)
Self Published, $15; ebook $8.00
Reviewed by Darcy Munson Meijer (in Gabon from 1982-1984.
Faded Gray by Jeffrey Vollmer is the only Peace Corps Worldwide book I’ve reviewed that involves a corrupt Peace Corps. This and the development of the main character make this work of fiction quite interesting. However, before Vollmer pens additional books, he should take a course in syntax and punctuation or pay an editor to help him with his stories.
Faded Gray follows Grayson Palmer, a PCV posted in Estonia, part of the “former Soviet Union’s wild east.” Palmer’s assignment is to author grant proposals for the Tartu Industrial Park and Science Incubator, or TIPSI. Grayson quickly learns that he can make additional money by writing grants for goods and services already funded. As he settles in, he comes to see this not as corruption but “trickle-down.”
Most of the other PCVs in Estonia are dysfunctional, unpleasant people. At one point Grayson asks himself whether anyone who enters the Corps today fits the ideal envisioned by JFK and Sargent Shriver. He befriends two other Volunteers, Ilene and Lloyd. Lloyd is supposedly an English teacher, but gives “lessons” to beautiful women in his sauna. He also grows and sells top-grade marijuana. Ilene and Grayson become lovers, but Grayson senses that, like Lloyd, there is more to her than meets the eye. The action picks up when Grayson meets a Turkish gangster and becomes dangerously involved with the Eurasian mob. After an exciting rescue scene, a shocking aspect of Peace Corps/Estonia is revealed, and Grayson must make a difficult choice.
This isn’t the Peace Corps that Harry Belafonte convinced me to join. Indeed, it’s not the agency that I worked for in Gabon in the early 80s. It’s a Corps whose cynical Volunteers serve themselves first. The late 90s Peace Corps in Faded Gray stimulates the Latvian economy by selling marijuana. “Or does the American government plant “volunteers” there to do these things? Either way, the Peace Corps is compromised.” From there, it’s a small step to training particular Volunteers to gather information for the U.S. government. Even in Grayson’s early training, volunteers “manipulate statistics into information the State Department compiles to justify its actions.”
Vollmer’s plot recalls questionable incidents in recent Peace Corps history in which its integrity was threatened, including the 2008 incident at the American embassy in Bolivia and President Bush’s proposal for more cooperation between the Peace Corps and the military. In a disturbing article in U.S. News and World Report from 12/12 – “How the Peace Corps Benefits Diplomatic Security” – RPCV Robert Nolan says that the Peace Corps could benefit diplomatic security by supplementing the activities of the State Department. He proposes increasing Peace Corps funding significantly, “with the aim of boosting volunteer activity specifically in the Middle East and North Africa.” Nolan’s agenda is nauseatingly transparent, and Vollmer is right to deal with this issue.
Vollmer does a fine job developing the main character. Grayson’s pre-Corps background informs his steady character, his mental and physical toughness. Knowing this solitary, intelligent man’s thoughts and feelings made me sympathize with his choices. It is not hard even for a man with integrity to slip into that gray area between right and wrong, especially when evil forces contrive against him, bending his strengths to their own use.
I enjoyed Vollmer’s Faded Gray. I was intrigued by this depiction of a corrupt Corps, and I appreciated Vollmer’s close-up look at modern Estonia. Vollmer creates suspense in Gray’s steady descent into the underworld and his collision with an evil truth. The mechanical and syntactic errors were very distracting, however. Vollmer needs to master his written English before settling down to write his next book.
Darcy Munson Meijer served in the Peace Corps as a TEFL in Gabon from 1982-1984. She currently teaches English at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.