A Novel for Our Time
With its bloggers, female terrorists, and downtown hipsters, David Goodwillie’s debut novel, American Subversive, seems ripped from the headlines, but Claire Howorth praises a rare novel that gets the moment even as we’re living it.
Recently the Pentagon released more details of last September’s thwarted terrorist attack on New York: A few Muslim terrorists planned to stand in the middle of crowded subway cars and blow themselves up mid-tunnel. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans worry about what’s next, but perhaps New Yorkers are especially sensitized—things that go bump in the night, a fleet of wailing sirens, a subway car held a minute too long between stops; it all can make any heart pause.
Now, suppose the Next Thing isn't a suicidal al Qaeda henchman lurking in the subway, but a young, upper class, college-educated American woman who decides to blow up Barneys on Madison Avenue? We wouldn't have seen that one coming. A stretch? Not in American Subversive.
Goodwillie’s wit serves his story well—in addition to all of the perfectly authentic character quirks, there’s some wry terrorist banter, playful Post-style headline writing, and loads of well-informed satire.
David Goodwillie has set his expansive novel in the unsettlingly near future of 2011. In Lower Manhattan, Aidan Cole gossip-blogs his way into self-decay; like so many young professionals in the post-recession grimness, he has become disenchanted with his profession and pessimistic about his future. At night, Aidan parties with rich, connected, fabulous friends, including a handsome South American financier, Touché (who becomes the plot's perfect red herring), and Aidan’s bland, unlikable girlfriend, Cressida. (The ostentatious character names are my lone quibble.)
American Subversive is at its best and brightest here in Aidan’s world. An insider-y satire of the incestuous media world is at play—Aidan’s boss, Derrick Franklin, at the gossip website Roorback.com, are Nick Denton and Gawker if fiction ever claimed them; Cressida, a newspaper reporter, is the archetypally ambitious lit-girl. And boy, she really is just so hard to like. Her disagreeable character helps only to propel the reader toward a certain empathy with the other woman in Aidan’s life—the terrorist.
Touché, too, is a well-hewn caricature of that outlier every New Yorker counts as an acquaintance: the really, really rich, coincidentally sexy guy whose luck unfurls like a plush, golden carpet before his every step. Touché’s family counts a sprawling Fishers Island estate and friendship with the likes of J.D. Salinger among their many assets. All this—the fun stuff that the most Gatsbyan stories are made of—is the material Goodwillie is most comfortable with, and it shows.
Which is not to say he doesn’t do misguided politico-chick well. Indeed, it’s remarkable that anyone would be able to ably achieve a narrative that captures what makes a female terrorist tick, but he pulls it off.
While Aidan’s having ambivalent sex with his equally ambivalent girlfriend, Paige Roderick has left her job in D.C. and returned to North Carolina to mourn the death of her brother, a soldier killed in Iraq. Emotionally razed and adrift, she has fallen into league with her brother’s old Appalachian pals—a band of neo-hippies dedicated to varying degrees of radicalism: Some are mere dabblers, happy to smoke joints and talk politics around the campfire; others, the ones Paige allies herself with, are violent activists, derivatives of and subsidized by aging members of the Weather Underground. The fine line between murderous fanaticism and impassioned activism is part of what Goodwillie aims to explore in the book.
When an explosion tears through Barneys, Aidan receives an anonymous email reading “She did it,” and a picture of Paige. How did this normal, pretty girl become a dangerous revolutionary, and why does Aidan of all people receive such information? Aidan, under the delusion that involving the police or FBI would be a mistake, and half hoping he can break a major story and reinvigorate his career, decides to find Paige himself. Meanwhile, the radicals, whose previous attacks have been casualty-free, plan to set off another bomb, this time filled with nails, glass, and shrapnel—this time, meant to kill people—and Paige balks; American Subversive kicks into high gear.
Paige and Aidan’s surprising connection to a Weatherman becomes the most interesting historical tangent. Fortunately, Goodwillie does not provoke post-Obama Bill Ayers fatigue, but effectively toys with the idea that some aggressive political movements were founded with good reason and reasonable intention, even if ultimately the wrong approach. (Lest anyone mistake the exploration of concepts here for any sort of advocacy for violence, he or she has missed the point.)
American Subversive skillfully spins the themes of morality, loyalty, and patriotism into an insightfully entertaining commentary on modern history and contemporary society. Don’t mistake a buried exegesis for seriousness, though. Goodwillie’s wit serves his story well—in addition to all of the perfectly authentic character quirks, there’s some wry terrorist banter, playful Post-style headline writing, and loads of well-informed satire. This is a fast-paced, engaging novel of pop-culture and big ideas, authentically subversive, and thoroughly American.
Claire Howorth is on staff at Vanity Fair and lives in Brooklyn.