British journalist Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American reminds me of a Humphrey Bogart character: street smart, witty, cynical, not playing to anyone’s side but his own, more depth than one might initially give him credit.
Contrast that to the American business man/spy Alden Pyle: exuberant, naive with an innocent type of arrogance. In fact, innocent is the way Greene (through Fowler) frequently describes Pyle.
When the two initially meet in Vietman in the 1950’s, Pyle immediately dubs Fowler his best friend – and then immediately says he wants to marry Phuong, Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress. Pyle never varies from these traits while Fowler thinks long and hard about their political and social situation.
As the plot thickens into a political spy thriller, the suspense as to how Fowler will finally handle Pyle’s task at hand increases along with the amount of opium Fowler puts in his own pipe. The title of the novel is from a joke of sorts: The only quiet American is a dead American.
As one might already tell, Greene does not paint Americans with high regard and is one of the reasons this novel has been frequently banned over the decades. Published before the United States had fully escalated it’s involvement in Vietnam, one could say that Greene had a knack for understanding the future as Fowler surmises:
Perhaps there is a prophet as well as a judge in those interior courts where our true decisions are made.