MAINLAND by Robert McCrum


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Another sensitive, underplotted sort-of-espionager from British publisher McCrum (The Fabulous Englishman, A Loss of Heart, etc.) that almost succeeds in turning its featureless anomie to advantage. The gimmick is that globe-hopping political consultant Stephen Mallory is carrying on his business--mostly making security arrangements for visiting bigwigs--in a bomb-stricken country that's pretty clearly meant to stand in for Northern Ireland. Yet it isn't Northern Ireland--it isn't identified at all, except by contrast with the ""mainland"" Mallory returns to for briefings and quarrels with his chief Alan Wagner--and in fact every distinctive feature of the landscape has been systematically suppressed, so that the moderately realistic characters seem to have been pasted atop a gameboard whose grayness becomes startlingly visionary, Kafkaesque. In the end, though, the grayness does in McCrum's elegant, world-weary novel: Stephen's posting to the occupied zone to safeguard an American rock star named Troy, who likes the company of underage boys (Stephen, unfortunately, knows just the boy for him--the bright, disturbing activist Skylark); the fanatical opposition of messianic evangelist Hickey; Stephen's uneasy romance with reporter Isabel Rome (is he really in love? he keeps wondering and wondering); the explosive rivalry of would-be rival Joseph Curtis--all of it, including the incendiary climax, seems to be taking place under exquisitely tinted water. As careful in its observation, as beautifully composed, and as hollow at the core as a spy film directed by Woody Allen at his most dyspeptic.

Pub Date: March 4th, 1992
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Knopf