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Michael O'Dwyer is a professor at a third-rate New Jersey college, on a visit to Nottingham for a conference on George Orwell. Jessie Jackson, a younger woman he meets on the plane, is a starry-eyed radical American labor organizer from Berkeley, traveling to England during the 1985 coal strike to show the colors on behalf of US coal miners. The two have a week together, visiting the doomed strikers and their organizers, shuttling between tourist jaunts and firsthand experience of the worker's despair, that could be the stuff of a slightly more bittersweet David Lodge novel. But as interpolated pages from a British police inquest make clear, something terrible is going to happen to this couple. The details add up: the impression that Michael's Irish name and looks makes during a time of IRA bombings, Jessie's radical naiveté, her shabby-sinister English connections, particularly David, who seems tense whenever Michael shows up. The climax finds the couple driving around London in a borrowed car that, we suspect, holds a bomb: Jessie finally admits she was asked by IRA sympathizers back in California to decoy British customs by picking up an Irish- looking male and traveling with him. As she and Michael discuss what they to do, we already know from the inquest that someone—British MI5, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the IRA—has decided to take lethal preventive action.
Too many scenes feel like mini-essays, and characters lecture at the drop of a hat. But fine description, a well-constructed story, and a sympathetic portrayal of the generally overlooked American and British working class carry this one over its dull patches.