Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures
by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thompson (Miramax Books, 320 pages, $25.95)

It's hard to keep the gag reflex at bay when faced with another memoir by someone still a decade from an AARP card. With their daddy dramas, insipid ennui and hardly marketable lives, a spate of premature reflectors have sullied the literary memoir by using it as a pretext for confessional blabbering. Thankfully , Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures is a very different kind of memoir. Sure, there's scintillating confession, but the book is actually about something, that something being the experiences of three U.N. aid workers serving in some of the most horrific crises of the 1990s. From Cambodia's elections to the ethnic-cleansing exercises of Bosnia and Rwanda, to the civil wars of Haiti and Somalia, this trifecta could've easily cranked out several memoirs each.

Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Andrew Thomson became friends in Cambodia while supervising the country's first election in 1993. Straight outta Harvard Law, Cain wants to change the world via human-rights law. Postlewait is a freshly divorced social worker who hustles a gig as a U.N. secretary to escape lower-middle-class poverty as only a New Yorker can know it. In the process she enjoys a healthy amount of cross-cultural humping, triggered by the "wake up and smell the mortality" lifestyle in places like Mogadishu. Rounding out the triptych is an avuncular doctor, Andrew Thomson, the son of New Zealand missionaries.

Emergency Sex shifts between its three narrators, which provides a breathless pace and offers a welcome relief from the genre's routine abuse of the letter "I." The authors are very different both in outlook and in the work they do. Their missions find them scattered across the globe, so at times the friendship that's united them in print seems inchoate. However, all three share a sense of disillusionment with the U.N.'s ability, and thus their own capacity, to solve global crises. It's particularly ironic, however, to read Cain's observation, "What good is American power if we won't use it?" now that our administration can't get enough.

Emergency Sex has received much attention due to the U.N.'s attempt to suppress it. Postlewait and Thomson, who still work there, are allegedly being threatened with termination for the book's racy tidbits. Apparently, the U.N. is shocked that its own might find solace in the odd roll in the mess hall. But when your showers find you scrubbing body parts from your hair, it's surprising that they didn't resort to measures much more desperate.

More by John Dicker


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