Book Review: American Subversive

By John McCrystal

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American Subversive by David Goodwillie
Simon and Schuster, $39

American Subversive book cover. Photo / Supplied
American Subversive book cover. Photo / Supplied

Aidan is a thirty-something professional blogger, living a low-rent version of the high-life in post-9/11 New York. His relationship with his journalist girlfriend, Cressida, is strained; he's stuck in a bit of a rut.

Then someone anonymously emails him a blurred photograph of a beautiful young woman who, the emailer alleges, is responsible for the placing of a bomb in the building housing the upmarket department store, Barney's. The crime has hitherto puzzled everyone: the office destroyed belonged to a harmless gay fashion designer, who was overseas with his entire crew at the time. No one was injured. It all seemed completely pointless.

Aidan does a bit of digging, and manages to get a lead on the story. He tracks down Paige Roderick to a small town in Vermont, and soon finds himself being drawn, not altogether against his will, into Paige's world, or more precisely, underworld.

American Subversive is written alternately in the voices of Aidan and Page, so we get to follow each of them on their converging paths.

Paige, we learn, was a pretty ordinary American girl forging a successful career for herself until she was "radicalised" - to coin a phrase - by the death of her brother on active service in Iraq. In deep mourning, she fell in with a group of activists plotting to carry out acts ("Actions") of subversive violence against targets carefully selected to draw the attention of Americans to the nation's general state of degeneracy, without inflicting casualties (a la Weather Underground, a radical anti-war group that carried out acts of sabotage during the Vietnam war in the 1960s and early 70s).

Paige became mesmerised by the highly charismatic Keith Sutter, a leading figure in the movement, and joined his cell, planning and carrying out bombings. But the longer she's been in with him, and the closer she's got to him, the more the gloss has worn off Keith's character for her.

When she discovers that his next caper seems calculated to main and kill, she wants out. Aidan's sudden appearance in her life at this precise moment seems providential.

This is the first novel by David Goodwillie (not the soccer player): he's previously published a memoir (somewhat precociously, you'd have to think, given he's only 28), but it's written with complete assurance. The prose is slick, lively and occasionally very funny. The rate at which the various elements of the plot are disclosed is nicely controlled, and the way in which he plays with the parallel timeframes of his double narrative to deliver a final blow to the reader is masterfully done.

But the plot lets it down, with the characters making some truly exasperating choices. The abrupt burgeoning romance between Aidan and Paige makes sense in terms of plot conventions, but rather less in light of what we know of their characters. And the author regrettably turns his back on the less-is-more approach that has served him well throughout the book in an information download to rival any Agatha Christie spilling of the beans in the drawing room scene.

There's some strongly made satirical points - contemporary America is an easy target, after all - but although the author's heart is in the right place, you kind of wish his eyes weren't so firmly cocked on the film rights.

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.

- NZ Herald

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