Saturday, April 24, 2010

Terrorists With Good Intentions: A Review of American Subversive by David Goodwillie (Scribner, 2010), 309 pp. $25.00

A combination thriller and meditation on the state of radical politics in the 21st century, David Goodwillie's American Subversive, just out this week, begins inside the head of gossip blogger Aidan Cole who, inexplicably, is in hiding in a neglected vacation home. Why, we are not yet sure. But what we do know is that someone who has epitomized the often aimless spirit of the New Media is locked away, managed by "handlers." He is subsisting on radio and day-old newspapers for information about the outside world and wondering whether "putting [his story] down on paper" will help him figure out how he has ended up in this place. But where is this place, you might ask? Is he in the witness protection program? And how is it that he has been thrown back on outmoded instruments like paper and pencil?

Why indeed? And do we care?

Ultimately, yes, we do. American Subversive is a fun read, even though we come to care (and come to the fun a thriller should provide) a bit too slowly for my taste. For example, we have to slog through too much of Aidan's life among superficial, wealthy media whores. This is a type Goodwillie appears to know intimately from his own past as a journalist and an Internet entrepreneur (something he memorialized in the memoir Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, 2006). We also slog through what proves to be an utter red herring, Aidan's ambivalence about his dying relationship with the bitchy Cressida, who has begun to break up with him by broadcasting Aidan's lack of sexual pizzazz in a gossip column she writes for the New York Times. This last is one of several odd plot details that will jolt you out of the fantasy world every thriller is obliged to create. The Gray Lady has tried to appeal to younger readers recently, with mildly pathetic innovations like the hideous boxed narrative in Sunday Styles describing the featured wedding of the week, or its "Evening Out" feature with some actor or rock band that has a really good publicist. But a regular column documenting the sex lives of its own employees?

OK, details, details. The story that concerns Our Hero is that there has been a bombing in midtown New York, at Barney's of all places. Aidan, in the midst of one of the terrible parties that punctuate his more or less meaningless life (he has major credit card debt and has gone to the event at Cressida's loft to confront her about the item trashing their sex life) receives a message in his blogger account that someone named Paige Roderick is responsible for the bombing, and that she is part of an underground network of domestic terrorists. A photo is attached, and you will not be surprised to learn that she is Very Beautiful. Subsequently, the novel alternates between Aidan and Paige's points of view to tell the story of who is responsible for the bombing, what it means, who sent the email anyway, and how the story of the two principles -- aimless blogger and committed underground guerrilla -- will come together to make everything clear by about page 100 or so.

It's hard to write a review like this without giving everything away that might ever want you to read the book, so I am not going to tell you who blew up Barney's or why. But I can tell you that I see you with this book on the beach, really I do. Although American Subversive starts slowly, I must admit that it eventually grabbed me, and I read the final 200 pages almost straight through. True, some of the plotting doesn't add up, and several of the characters are too thinly drawn for my taste. It's hard to be engaged by a character -- blogger or not -- whose narrative relies on an aimlessness finally disrupted by an accidental involvement with domestic terrorists who he eventually comes to be sympathetic to, and who ruin his admittedly purpose-free life.

Paige, on the other hand, is a character of real substance who carries the novel, and might have done so on her own. She becomes involved with the mysterious radical network (which includes elderly former Weatherman members and the Earth Liberation Front) because of grief over her brother's death in Iraq. She is compelling and nuanced, and her embrace by a gentle alternative community that turns out to have an agenda of its own seems emotionally authentic. It also seems real that a person might believe her life to have been rendered meaningless by the wartime death of a beloved sibling and her inability to absorb that death as she comes to understand that war as corrupt. Such a narrative accurately renders what many former Black Panthers and antiwar activists from the Viet Nam era have described as the sense of a world out of control in the 1960s, one that made them vulnerable to a magnetic set of ideals, and idealists, and that led to actions they now look back on with regret. Goodwillie's promise as a novelist is better signaled by his ability to imagine a character like Paige, rather than, as the publicity materials suggest, his imperfect rendering of his own life and experiences in the characters of Aidan and his friends.

Everybody in the novel is beautiful, and this bodes well for American Subversive having future incarnations that make its defects less important as it shape-shifts into other media. My prediction is that American Subversive will do better on audio books and Kindle than it will between boards, and that there is an agent somewhere who saw a so-so book but a great movie deal. I'm thinking Claire Danes for Paige, and Entourage's Adrian Grenier finally making a successful jump into anything other than playing Vince forever. Heck, there could be a television series (like the short-lived Prison Break), in which Paige and Aidan stay one jump ahead of the law, serving the people's justice on polluters, corrupt land developers, cheatiing mortgage companies, marketers of phony Green appliances, and military bureaucrats who deceive disabled veterans and the families of dead military heroes.

There are pieces of this complex narrative that don't quite hold together that I think could be smoothed out in a movie script, for example, ditching the ill-advised Weatherman subplot. As a historian, I do have a problem with that, since survivors of the group have mostly expressed sorrow for having taken up violence, not a desire to see those forms of violent subversion revived by a new generation. Furthermore, during the book's final chapters, there seem to be many more Weather folk still living underground than I can account for in total from the 1970s. And Keith, the compelling mastermind of Paige's little terror cell, who eventually becomes more or less deranged, reminds me more of the egotistical United Fruit Company bomber Sam Melville than he reminds me of the far more disciplined and ideologically-driven Weather Underground.

That said, most people will not be troubled by these historical details, Goodwillie is a decent writer and there are parts of the novel I really liked. By about page 50, it begins to move more swiftly, although I continued to be semi-impatient about Aidan's chapters -- he is more or less swept along by events -- and I looked forward to the chapters that documented Paige's ongoing, far more morally thoughtful, transformation. There is an important Betrayal, and a somewhat surprising twist towards the end (I won't wreck it) in which, more or less, All Is Revealed. It is also worth your interest that a novelist has gone out of his way, however imperfectly, to imagine what a principled resistance to capitalism and the contemporary war machine might look like in a post- 9/11 world. Simultaneously, Goodwillie also makes the case that human imperfection and the necessary isolation of underground groups creates the possibility for amoral megalomania. Whether principled, targeted violence to prevent unjust violence is justified or not is also not a task the novel resolves: that violence inevitably destroys lives is, I think, an argument the novel makes, and perhaps that was his principle goal.

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