When an American Foreign Service worker is escorted at gunpoint to meet the new leader of an African nation in the novel ``No More Boss Man," he has second thoughts about the wisdom of setting foot outside just hours after a violent coup.
The book's author, Frank P. Catanoso of Marshfield, knows well how to portray the moment, because 25 years ago he lived the story he tells.
Catanoso, the US embassy's public affairs officer in Liberia in 1980, was the first American to have an audience with Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, who came out of nowhere one April night to take over the government of Liberia.
The difference between the event's fictional re-creation and the facts on the ground? ``It was actually scarier" in real life, Catanoso said. To make the situation even riskier, Catanoso's teenage son was with him, a detail he left out of the novel.
During those tumultuous days following the coup, he says, he was guided by one overriding motivating principle: ``I just didn't want to get killed."
All the major events in his behind-the-scenes account of a violent military takeover of a corrupt Third World government are true, the author said.
Those events includes the assassination and disemboweling of the deposed Liberian president, the looting of the ruling class's mansions, the narrow escape of a Lebanese merchant who was threatened by a trigger-happy soldier who thought the merchant was trying to poison him with limburger cheese, and the mass public execution of the entire deposed Cabinet.
``It was a crazy scene," Catanoso said. ``It looked like something out of the movies. We didn't know who the good guys or the bad guys were. . . . It was wild and exciting to be in the middle of it."
And, of course, frightening, as soldiers with automatic weapons and uncertain discipline patrolled the streets of Monrovia, Liberia's capital.
Catanoso was with the international press corps when soldiers rounded up 13 Cabinet ministers, tied them to poles, shot them, and then mutilated their bodies.
One of the executed was the country's foreign minister, a ``tall, distinguished-looking man" who had been a favorite with American diplomats, Catanoso said. ``He was at my house two weeks before. It was a scary thing to see someone you knew get his brains blown out."
Spooked by the blood lust of ``coked up" soldiers, one of the reporters urged his colleagues, ``Let's get out of here before they start on us," a piece of dialogue in the book that was drawn from real life, the author said.
A native New Yorker, Catanoso joined the US Information Agency in 1967, after stints as a reporter for the New York Daily News and as a member of the public relations staff at
His Foreign Service work included a posting in Ethiopia as press attaché when that country's longtime ruler, Haile Selassie, was overthrown . During that coup, Catanoso said, he ``had a car shot out from under me." The car was collateral damage in a firefight between armed factions. He wasn't the target, but the bullets were real.
A few years later Catanoso was sent to Liberia, a small West African nation founded by former American slaves in the 1840 s. Descendants of those founders, called Americos, still lorded it over the native population in 1980, an example of black-on-black imperialism. Resentment of a ruling class that spent the country's wealth on itself, governed badly, and kept members of other tribes out of positions of power and influence eventually fueled the violent coup.
As Catanoso tells the story in his novel, coup leader Samuel Doe and his allies were motivated by the good of the country's masses, but their violent elimination of the Americo leaders proved a stumbling block to the new regime's legitimacy. The coup's leaders eventually split and turned on one another, leading the country into a long violent era.
The novel explains the importance of its title. To kill ``a boss man" in Liberia, a revolutionary intellectual explains in one passage, you have to kill his spirit also. That was why the president was disemboweled.
``You have to understand the forces at play here," the adviser says. ``You can't use American standards to judge other people."
After a career that included serving as chief of the Africa Press Bureau in Washington, Catanoso retired from the Foreign Service a dozen years ago and moved to Marshfield, where he and his wife Joan owned a vacation home. He worked a few years for MPG Newspapers, a community newspaper group in Plymouth, covering sports and writing lifestyle features. ``I did it as sort of a lark," he said.
The couple have four children, and the travel bug that drove Catanoso into the Foreign Service in the 1960s appears to have been inherited by the next generation. Two of his children live abroad and a third in Seattle. Christian, the teenage son who was with his father that dangerous morning in Monrovia, now manages a baseball team in Parma, Italy.
``No More Boss Man," published by iUniverse Inc., is available on the internet and in bookstores.
Robert Knox can be contacted at email@example.com.