The New Republic
Edgar Kellogg, the protagonist of THE NEW REPUBLIC, has issues. Nearing 40, he is still smarting from wounds suffered in high school as a fawning acolyte of the school golden boy. Having managed to shed 100 pounds in six months, he still carries around the pain of overhearing the object of his adoration refer to him as “clingy.” Imagine his annoyance, then, when the first posting of his new journalism career is overseas to replace yet another Big Man On Campus, Barrington Saddler, who has inexplicably disappeared.
"While the book was completed in 1998, Shriver waited until now to get it published, because a novel that is funny and also deals with terrorism was obviously problematic after 9/11. For some it may remain so. This is not a feel-good book, but I found it intriguing and entertaining."
Kellogg arrives in Barba, a fictional peninsula south of Portugal, to a bleak landscape where the wind won’t stop howling, and his fellow journalists can’t stop talking about the larger-than-life “Bear.” He moves into Barrington’s palatial digs in Cinziero (Portuguese for “ashtray”) and promptly falls for Barrington’s former lover Nicola, the wife of one of the “journo” stringers living there to report on the doings of Os Soldados de Barba (the SOB). This terrorist group is purportedly aligned with the Barban independence movement, and has gained international prominence as the evildoers behind bombings all over the world.
Yet the closest the journalists can get to a spokesman for the SOB is oily Tomas Verdade --- the leader of O Creme de Barbear, the separatist political party --- who insists that while O Creme and the SOB share a common aim of an independent Barban state, he himself has no connection to the terrorists. “Verdade’s appeal --- even to men --- was fundamentally sexual. Those huge tawny eyes fixed a TV camera with seductive restraint, as if the secrets he kept were burdensome to him and he yearned to confess.” The trouble is, since Barrington disappeared, the SOB seems to have gone dark as well. And as Edgar drinks Barrington’s gin, drowns in his flowing rayon shirts, lounges on his settee, and covets the attention that even the absent Barrington receives, he discovers a chance to take over where “Bear” left off.
Neither the landscape, with its noxious hairy pear and insane wind, nor the human characters in the novel escape Shriver’s razor-sharp wit: “Her bony butt cheeks were squeezed so tightly together that if she held a pencil between them she could sign her name.” “As Edgar drew into Cinziero, the city proved so remarkably ugly that Edgar wanted to shake somebody’s hand. There’s not-giving-a-sh-- ugliness, not-knowing-any-better-ugliness, nakedly-cheap ugliness, and worst of all intending-to-be-really-attractive ugliness, but Cinziero was the kind of ugly that took effort.”
But amidst the tongue-in-cheek asides, such as “His checked bags were lined with general texts on terrorism, most of which said it was bad,” the book does explore, albeit cynically, the aims and methods of terrorists. “A lucid argument can be made that the distinction between state and extra-state violence is artificial,” opines a stuffed shirt to Edgar on the flight over to Barba, but although the character is ridiculous, a reader may yet consider the truth or falsity of the opinion. Thank goodness for Nicola, Edgar’s crush, who evinces the only sincere and wholesome sentiments in the book. “If considering terrorism wrong and ugly is simpleminded, I suppose I am. In fact, since I can’t see two sides to it, the issue doesn’t even engage me.”
Events build to a pitch, and for the first time, the destruction becomes very real to Edgar. But for me, THE NEW REPUBLIC is more about Edgar’s adulation syndrome and how and why some people become the subject of such fascination as it is about terrorism. In that light, the ending was surprisingly satisfying. While the book was completed in 1998, Shriver waited until now to get it published, because a novel that is funny and also deals with terrorism was obviously problematic after 9/11. For some it may remain so. This is not a feel-good book, but I found it intriguing and entertaining.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on March 29, 2012
The New Republic
- Publication Date: April 2, 2013
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0062103334
- ISBN-13: 9780062103338