Muffled sketch of Cold War U.S. culture.
Ted Riley is a graduate student in English in an isolated Midwestern town. It’s 1959, and the world seems to be on the cusp of dangerous changes, but in the small world of academia, the age’s looming violence and paranoia seem muted and far away. Ted is affable, responsible and spectacularly average. Occasionally, he indulges in some vague, armchair anxiety, but he has neither the temperament nor the passion to sustain it for long. Even his concern about his mother’s chronic illness is brief and restrained. The novel kicks into gear when Ted falls in love with Dori, a vibrant free spirit from California, and gets even more interesting when Ted falls into an awkward friendship with Andrew Kesler, a melancholy refugee from Eastern Europe who works in the library. Frederick (Accomplices, 2003, etc.) draws a sharp portrait of how Ted’s essential decency acts as a balm for his troubled and complicated new friends, but when Ted attracts the attention of Sam Morrelli, a recruiter for a government agency, the novel tips into absurdity. Even Ted can’t quite believe he’s being asked to be a spy. The novel seems to promise that some explosive secret will be told, some plot uncovered, some personal truth discovered, but alas, it does not happen. In fact, the book is quite static. Sometimes this works nicely, and a claustrophobic atmosphere hovers like a fog, but finally, Ted is too slight a character to inhabit such an atmosphere. The minor characters manage to give the text some texture and dimension; if only the protagonist were not so empty.
Atmospheric and textured but lacking a payoff.