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From Barnes & NobleTrouble in Paradise
Stephen Amidon's surprising new social novel, The New City, begins with a race riot. At the teen center in Newton, Maryland—an idealistic planned community that hopes to become an example of what the novel's title announces—a group of "hard-eyed crackers with stringy goatees" have taken it upon themselves to drive out the black teenagers—who favor the O'Jays and Stevie Wonder—by repeatedly blasting Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein." The year is 1973. When the black teens protest—by tearing the needle off the record player—a fight breaks out. The center is badly damaged.
Austin Swope, the lawyer who runs the city, knows that reopening the teen center will only result in another riot, and so the damaged building remains boarded up for the rest of the novel, like a soothsayer on the edge of town to whose tragic auguries no one will listen. Indeed, the racial tension that begins the book is the fuel that drives the magnificently hopeless plot forward. In The New City, Amidon has written the great novel of late-century suburban racial strife.
At the center of the story, and the town, are two families, one black and one white. Swope is a crafty white lawyer whose sometimes shady land deals have made Newton possible; Earl Wooten is his partner, a black master-builder who has overseen construction of the town. The mastermind behind their efforts is an idealistic architect named Barnaby Vine, a former apprentice of Louis Sullivan's, who has been relegated to the background of the story (Chicago, literally) by a massive stroke. Vine envisions Newton as "[t]he place where people would finally start living like they could"—a paradise of mixed-income housing without a single power line or billboard to blot out the pacifying sky. Amidon, an American who was a journalist in London for many years, builds the social dynamic of Newton with an architectural flair that Barnaby Vine himself would envy. Every character is load-bearing. Earl Wooten's wife, Ardeila, is the no-nonsense principal of the high school; his son Joel's white girlfriend, Susan Truax—their interracial coupling becomes the story's seed of destruction—is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. Amidon uses his characters to draw into the story all the activity and ideology of the era. At times, the novel leans toward the territory of the classical American allegory—Amidon's architecture has a certain 19th-century wholeness to it—but the author's irresistible flair for dialogue and detail infuses it with buoyancy and surprise.
Swope's and Wooten's sons are the first fruits of Vine's plan. Teddy Swope, whose 1590 SAT scores have landed him two scholarships to Harvard, and Joel Wooten, a charming ladies' man with his own scholarship to Bucknell, have been best friends since their fathers first brought them to the vast construction site that would become Newton. Questions of race rarely enter their relationship, though Teddy worships John Lennon while Joel seems to listen exclusively to Stevie Wonder. Amidon draws these characters with vivid strokes. Teddy, when recalling all the girls who have flocked to his best friend over the years, finds comfort in musing, "They were just a bunch of Cynthias anyway. His Yoko had yet to arrive."
Amidon, whose previous works of fiction include Subdivision (1992), Thirst (1993), and The Primitive (1995), has the fine ear for historical detail that comes only from having lived through the era portrayed, and his novel is sprinkled with casual reference points that slowly immerse us in the America of 1973. When Austin Swope hires John Truax as his personal detective, he hears the voiceover of a ubiquitous television commercial run through his head: "Don't forget, hire the vet."
It is this hiring that begins the novel's tragic downward spiral. Wooten has been called to Chicago for a meeting with Newton's parent corporation, EarthWorks. He is advised by the slick CEO of the company to tell no one of his trip. When Swope uncovers all of this, with the help of his new private detective, he assumes that Wooten is going to be offered the position of Newton City Manager, an appointment Swope has long expected, and which, in a wildly ambitious inner monologue, he imagines to be the first in a series of stepping stones that lead all the way to the White House. Enraged, Swope declares a covert war on Wooten, using Truax to carry out his missions, which consist mostly of defamation and disruption, though Swope also has a master plan for framing Wooten for extensive fraud. Truax, whose first post-service job as a Newton real estate salesman was more or less a disaster, couldn't be happier. He prowls around the forests of Newton, seeing how long he can go without sleep, subsisting on Ho Hos and coffee, and recalling with grim satisfaction his exploits in the jungles of Vietnam, where he was apparently a legend among both armies.
But all three men have other problems. Both the Wootens and the Truaxs have opposed Joel and Susan's relationship from the start—Earl Wooten on the grounds that it is simply bad medicine; Irma Truax, a German émigré, for slightly more offensive reasons. Irma is the only true racist in the novel; the rest of the characters simply fall prey to their petty prejudices. When Joel and Susan are caught in medias res by Susan's parents, they are forbidden to see each other anymore. Teddy masterminds a plan to reunite them, while his father plots Earl Wooten's downfall. The two crises dovetail with film noir hopelessness, one irretrievable misjudgment leading right to the next, hurtling us unstoppably toward the tragic finale. Amidon is good at surprising us in the last 100 or so pages, spinning unforeseen outcomes that immediately seem inevitable and ultimately, profound.
Jacob Silverstein lives in Marfa, Texas.
About the Author
An American who lived and worked in London for 15 years as a journalist, editor, and reviewer, Stephen Amidon now lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with his wife and children.