The title of Ryan McIlvain’s new novel The Radicals refers not only to McIlvain’s protagonists but also to a piano composition performed early on in the narrative and described as “a musical record and a critique…of the medieval Christian attempts to impose God’s kingdom on earth…” A portentous note has been struck. Ahead, we fear, lies Meaning and this is hardly surprising. McIlvain’s previous novel Elders was primarily a brooding drama of internal struggle among young Mormon missionaries, a drama in which the denouement was a biblically long time coming. Acclaimed, parenthetically, as a worthy addition to the category of “ex-Mormon fiction,” (one that claims writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Neil Labute, Shawn Vestal and Brian Evenson), Elders established McIlvain as above all serious. Thankfully The Radicals reveals him also to be agile and irreverent. “I was a hale, hearty, well-adjusted child of loving, educated parents,” Eli, the narrator, admits, “I just couldn’t bring myself to give a shit anymore.” That’s more like it.
We meet Eli on the tennis court opposite his new friend Sam Westergard. Both are graduate students in New York City. Their subject being Marxist theory, they are playing tennis ironically. Or pretending to, acting like “a pair of intellectuals disgracing the game” while in fact straining to win. Not like the real athletes on an adjacent court, “their rally balls ticking back and forth metronomically, and low over the net, like grown-up shots.” The scene could be the opening of a T.C. Boyle story; jittery and sharp, it alerts us to every sound, every shift of light and to an undercurrent of menace. Then, sure enough, “I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer,” Eli recalls, “and neither could he.” (McIlvain has us on edge and, despite existential digressions, keeps us there. By the time his politically charged and emotionally turbulent plot subsides, Eli the socialist and Sam the ex-Mormon will stumble into killing and here too the novel’s lens is tightly focused and the images sickeningly clear: “now the old man has pitched forward, jerking forward and to the side as if bitten by the sound, and then another, then a third loud pop….Sam tracking him with his gun, following his movements, as if stirring something in the air.”
Before action, however, comes doctrine and, surprisingly, romance. The first arrives in the shape of Eli’s ex-girlfriend Alex who leads a radical group agitating against the swindling energy corporation Soline and its criminal CEO while the second takes the form of Jen, a young classical pianist (see above) who inspires Eli to become a better person (and her fiancé) but to whom he lies. About his abandoned dissertation; about the fast-food job he sabotages; and about Alex who is now with Sam who has turned mysterious. “He ran hot and cold sometimes in the space of a single sentence,” Eli frets, “and the cold could stop your heart, as if you’d swum out with him into the warm shallows of his old enthusiasm…only to feel the bottom drop out at the continental shelf’s edge: Suddenly you’re in bottomless, dark, updrafting, freezing water.”
The Cause, the Relationship and the Friendship cross paths in Arizona where Eli joins Alex’s group in occupying the foreclosed house of one of Soline’s victims and where a standoff with local police, deftly staged, fizzles wonderfully. “It felt like whole minutes before the giant officer softened, scoffing a little…. ‘I take it you’re the Occupy leftovers?’ he said. ‘You poor little hipster shits – you guys are all forty years late to the party.’ He tapped his partner on the shoulder and headed back to the cruiser.” Then it’s on to the Grand Canyon for Jen and Eli (“above miles of open, carved-out, calcified sky, like loss embodied, a present absence, and where was the vast spiky mold the land had been imprinted with?”) before the return to New York City, the slide into deceit and homicidal obsession, and then a final ascent to what sounds like redemption. The Radicals certainly ends on a soaring, rhapsodic note. But the novel is most satisfying when it doesn’t soar; when, for example, in Manhattan at nightfall a drunken Eli watches “the mysterious switchboard of the opposite buildings activate, permutate, the lights blinking on and off, shifting, sending mysterious signals” or when a desperate Eli loiters outside Jen’s workplace, “waiting with the manic, rattling feeling of a man who can see a giant countdown in the noonday sky.” This is McIlvain at his best, keeping his eye on the ball.