BROKEN GROUND by John Keeble

BROKEN GROUND

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Keeble's last book, Yellowfish (1980), a dynamo fueled by geopolitical metaphors and a talent for chase and menace, was one of the rare recent novels that seemed narratively tautened in order to cut intellectually. He's returned now to somewhat the same matrix--a man trapped within natural and economic forces mysterious as hieroglyphs--but here Keeble lets the story's drive slip its chain, falling into wisdom nostrums, and a general celebration of grainy-gray paranoia that leaves the characters exhausted in their roles as pawns. Hank LaFleur, a Vietnam vet (and a separated father, one of whose children drowned in a river when the parents' attention was elsewhere), goes to work on a construction site--though not voluntarily: his bedridden father is being squeezed financially by his old partner in the construction business, and LaFleur's only solution is sweat-equity. The project, in the eastern Oregon desert, turns out to be a prison, privately financed and run by a multinational corporation. What LaFleur only gradually realizes is that the prison will house illegal aliens and, more specifically, political dissidents whom the US obligingly parks for their annoyed host countries. The site manager, a chameleon named Vic Sabat, indirectly rides herd on LaFleur by letting a goon named Snediker harass and at one point even try to kill him. The only thing that helps LaFleur feel human in this twilight landscape is his sexual relationship with the project computer analyst (and Sabat's ex-girlfriend) Iris--and yet Iris too has it all over LaFleur, knowing much more about the shadowy and compromised people and monies they're dealing with out there in the nowhere. Keeble continually tries to contrast the Manichaean sliminess of the political/industrial/homicidal setup with LaFleur's appreciation of the patency of heavy construction (it's one of those books where technical descriptions run to serial paragraphs) and sex with Iris. Ultimately, though, a reader feels nothing has been made definite or scary enough; that neither Sabat nor LaFleur nor even Snediker will crease the black or white suits in which Keeble dresses them--and therefore much suspense is lost and too many sentimental polemics gained. Keeble is a strong writer, but here his grid has cramped him: it's cryptic but curveless.

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1987
Publisher: Harper & Row