Live in New York City long enough and some of your haunts will make their way into the pages of fiction or the reels of TV and movies. Spend your teenage years up in Vermont’s third largest city, you don’t expect to see its downtown play an important role in the plot of a critically acclaimed novel. In David Goodwillie’s “American Subversive,” Rutland, Vermont is just such a city.
Towards the end of the novel, is it revealed that two characters regularly meet at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Rutland. While any other city in Vermont could have been subbed in, it makes an already realistic book that much more striking. Nestled in downtown, near the Amtrak station, it is a parking lot I’ve driven by, walked through, and passed thousands of times. It is also, at least in “American Subversive,” where two folks discuss plans to use non-lethal violence to promote their fight for what they believe is a better America.
“American Subversive” is a story with two narrators: Aidan Cole and Paige Roderick. Cole is a blogger who writes for Roorback.com. Imagine Dan Abram’s Mediaite with the sarcastic and ironic bent of Gawker. Cole’s life, including his on again off again relationship with a journalist at The New York Times and his mysterious best friend Julian Touche, are nights filled with parties, access to exclusive clubs, and lots of hangovers. The reader hears from Aidan first and the opening chapter is set after the events of the novel transpire.
Roderick’s already tenuous existence is rocked by the death of her brother, who is serving in Iraq. Having drifted from New York to DC to work for an environmental think tank, she returns back to her native North Carolina. After spending time with her brothers friends, she realizes their back to the earth ways are a facade of sorts to an existence where they attack industrial targets. Roderick quickly rises through the ranks of this decentralized group and moves to Vermont with two other operatives, Keith and Lindsay.
The engine that sets the story in motion is the Vermont cell’s first “Action” as they are labeled. A bomb is placed in a midtown Manhattan office building, targeting a shadowy multi-national corporation. A few days after the bomb detonates in the early morning hours, a photo of Roderick casing the building is sent to Cole’s Roorback email address.
With the narrative switching back and forth, we learn about Cole’s efforts to find Roderick with the unwitting help of his sort-of-kind-of girlfriend and his friend Touche. At the same time, we learn that in the wake of the Vermont Action, the cell is looking for its next target. While this search is progressing, the dynamic between Paige, Keith, and Lindsey is shifting dramatically. This tension only ratchets up the intensity that comes develops with Keith’s unilateral decision to target a media company whose similarity to Fox News is so close they practically share the same Manhattan office space.
The novel, which is well-written and paced pitch perfectly, includes a handful of unfolding mysteries that come into vision as the story rushes to its conclusion. These include, but are not limited to: will Aidan, a J school drop out, find Paige? Will it make any difference if he does go public with the information he discovers? What becomes of Paige? Will Keith’s plan for the Fox News doppelganger succeed? All of these are answered as people in Aidan’s personal orbit, like his girlfriend, his best friend, and his mother’s upstate artist boyfriend figure into the story’s resolution.
Unlike many of the other novels on the Times list, the family structure is not the prominent construct pulsing through the story – it isn’t the identity that the characters are struggling with. Instead, the characters in “American Subversive” wrestle with what it means to be an American in this century, as members of a generation who will be given a country that is gasping – overstretched by two wars, fighting a war against a tactic, hampered by an economy hobbled by a financial meltdown. These characters struggle with the real world issues of what it means to be an American. One chronicles the over-consumption of the rich and spoiled, the other lost her brother in the streets of Mosul. Paige and Aiden may be fictional, but their worries are real. They go beyond themselves. They see a world struggling and a country focused on the maximization of profit. “American Subversive” is a study of how far some people go when they have nothing else.
On top of the story, Goodwillie’s description of Manhattan and New York seemed spot on. Even when he name drops Zadie Smith, Jenny Lewis, and other bold names, it doesn’t feel ostentatious or showy. It fits and that is a credit to the author’s writing. That being said, there are two glaring instances and a particularly humorous edit in the book that I want to share. First, Aidan Cole takes Amtrak directly from New London, CT to Yonkers, NY as he travels to see his mother in upstate New York. The only way Cole could have made it to Yonkers from New London is with a transfer in Penn Station. Minor, I know, but still.
Second, Goodwillie is on point when he describes Williamsburg in the early to mid 2000s and its transformation into a destination today. However, when forced to describe the bar scene in other parts of Brooklyn, he is less sharp. A throw away line about a possible night out on Smith Street describes girls loaded with tattoos. I am not too sure that the streets of Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill are filled with those types of girls. Again, a small issue, but something that stands out.
Recently, I have been checking out my books from the Cambridge Public Library. On one of the pages, the word beneficiary had been scratched out and a previous reader had written in pencil, benefactor. To whomever this mysterious editor was, thanks for the chuckle and the concern for me, the future reader. My suggestion to you is to go out and get this book.