Dan's Reviews > American Subversive: A Novel

American Subversive by David Goodwillie
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Apr 16, 12

Read from March 27 to April 15, 2012

This is a book of big ideas and missed opportunities. Author David Goodwillie takes on serious topics, but, while he does make contact, he doesn't hit it out of the park. Instead, he pokes it softly over the first baseman's head.

The story begins just after a bombing in midtown Manhattan, and the city is still reeling, and searching for culprits. Protagonist Aidan Cole, a blogger who parties with the media elite, receives an anonymous tip pointing him toward the perpetrators of the bombing, and the story is set in motion. The narrative bounces back in forth in dual first-person between Aidan and Paige Roderick, a member of the radical group behind the bombing. The story traces Aidan's amateur sleuthing and Paige's falling-in with domestic terrorists, with occasional detours to the aftermath, which finds Paige and Aidan holed up in safe houses somewhere, recounting the tale.

The book is set up nicely to explore a lot of interesting ideas, but never really delves too deeply into any of them. Perhaps it was too ambitious, trying to fit all these big ideas on its plate along with two narrators worth of character development, a mystery/thriller feel, and flashes of a love story, all while clocking in at just over 300 pages. It frustratingly fails to live up to its potential, but I suppose it's better to read a flawed but ambitious book than a flawlessly complacent book.

One of the major selling points of the book is that it explores the roots of domestic terrorism. But it doesn't really. Paige has a root cause for her dissatisfaction with her country -- her brother died in Iraq -- but the book doesn't really spend a lot of time examining why her dissatisfaction has manifested itself so violently. Aidan, meanwhile, abandons all logic to attempt to single-handedly track down these domestic terrorists rather than turn this tip over to the police or to his New York Times reporter girlfriend, and his motivations for doing so are never quite clear. The closest we get to an explanation is that he's bored with his superficial lifestyle, but again this idea is merely glanced at. Bret Easton Ellis this book is not.

There are countless big ideas the book could have explored in depth but didn't. The book features one character who is a blogging media critic and one who is part of a radical group that sees the mainstream media -- and especially a fictitious Fox News clone -- as an enemy, and yet the opportunity to create a scathing critique of mainstream media is ignored. The opportunity to explore Americans' complicity via complacency, while the government wages unjust wars and hands the wheel to corporations, is largely ignored. The narrator's best friend is a wealthy Venezuelan-American with ties to the revolution, but the opportunity to compare American social and political movements to those in South America -- a continent that has seen its fair share of revolutions -- is largely ignored. And so it goes. The more I think about this book, the more I think about how great it could have been if it really put its back into it. And while missing all these opportunities, the author does manage to shoehorn in a pretty unnecessary bit of romance, succumbing to the frustratingly common pattern of male narrators wanting to nail every woman they encounter, going from zero to "I love you" in the time it takes them to describe a woman's tits.

Admirably, the book does not take sides and does not become polemical. But in a way this is also a weakness. Rather than argue from all perspectives simultaneously and leave it to the reader to sort them out, it argues from no perspectives. Sure, the argument against terrorism is pretty obvious, but it's odd that no one in the book really makes it. Similarly, it's odd that not much of an argument is made for violence, either. There are some conversations of the "nothing will change unless we take action" variety, but they don't get too deeply into details before violence is arrived at as the best option. Rather than have the characters justify their actions with argument, the author imposes an implausible reality where violence is actually effective. In every instance, the radicals find some target -- say, a big corporation that's polluting behind the public's back -- attack it, and then sit back and watch as the aftermath of the attack leads to media scrutiny of the target, followed by legal investigations into the newly exposed wrongdoing, and then, ultimately, justice. The radicals really are changing the world. It isn't that the radicals have a naive "we're going to change things" mentality that doesn't jibe with reality. They actually are changing the world in exactly the way they expect.

I do not require a book like this to preach to me, to tell me what to think. Frankly, I prefer that it doesn't. But what it should do is examine all the facets of the issue at hand in all their complexity, and let me figure out what to make of it all. On this front, the book falls a bit flat. It's a testament to the book that I'm as frustrated with it as I am. There is a great book in here, it just didn't quite make it onto the page.
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