By Bruce Jacobs

“American Subversive”
By David Goodwillie
Scribner ($25.00, 309 pp.)

New York writer David Goodwillie got lucky:  a terrorist bomb was discovered in Times Square barely a week after the release of his first novel, “American Subversive,” mirroring in real life his story of a domestic radical bent on non-lethal violence whose first “action” is to blow out the top floor of Barneys flagship store on Madison Avenue and 61st.

One of his fictional protagonists, Paige Roderick, scores big as her bomb calls attention to its targeted shadowy private defense contractor Indigo Holdings.  Goodwillie, however, scored even bigger, suddenly doing interviews about his book on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.  No Scribner publicist could have orchestrated anything better.

More Blogger Than Bomber

Of course, Goodwillie only really knows about domestic terrorism what he has googled together for his novel.  In fact, he is much more similar to his other protagonist, Aidan Cole, who writes a blog for the trendy New York Roorback website.  Cole is an adrift English major who defaults into NYU’s journalism school looking for something to do, but very soon discovering that journalism is mostly doing nothing.  “They’d show up at the bar waving around their latest piece – a D-list celebrity Q-and-A, a back of the book band review, a restaurant profile in an airline magazine…The cover letters, the rejections, the research, the editing, the mailbox-checking, the disappointment, the depression, the drinking.  I could drink just fine without the rest of it.”  Instead he signs on as a paid hip and witty blogger.

“American Subversive” is told by these two protagonists in alternating first person diaries. Each reflects on the events that ultimately brought them together and then drove them apart into new identities in the underground.  It is a love story of sorts where the righteous Smokey Mountain activist Paige finds herself in the bumbling hands of the West Village “eternally hip” Aidan.  Along the way, Goodwillie dissects both the motives and earnest idealism of our “eco-warriors and anti-capitalists” and the sound-byte nihilism of our urban web-heads:  “Never has absolutely nothing been done with more style and determination than in early twenty-first century Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

A Brooklyn Scribe

He is best at describing the world of Cole who lives in a dump (“the ballgame still on, the laptop surrounded by tortilla chips and cheap magazines, old newspapers stacked on an old chair, and the absurdly small bookshelf lacking anything substantial”) on hooker-laden Weehawken Street at the ratty end of Christopher Street, and who spends his days trolling through internet gossip and news sites for tidbits to post for his readers’ condescending amusement.

His ex-girlfriend has just exposed his love life in her New York Times dating column, although he admits she is not far off the mark.  He is easily distracted by those “fine-boned MFA students from the New School, confident and ambitious and impossibly busy doing nothing at all…and wild-eyed Brooklyn artists with ink sleeves and lingering habits who seemed to never give a fuck about anything, and, it turned out, really didn’t give a fuck about anything.”  It is no wonder that the fair-haired mountain girl Paige wins his heart when a couple of anonymous emails and a little sleuthing lead him to her.

Shades of The Weather Underground

Goodwillie is not as good in describing Paige’s terrorist world with its endless paranoia, planning, and secrets.  He draws heavily on the historic exploits of the Weather Underground – and even creates a key character who, after thirty years on the lam from bombings in the seventies, comes out of disguise to help mastermind the Barneys bombing.

Still, his chronicle of Paige’s progression from the Seattle WTO protests of her youth (“We looked so scary, dressed head to toe in black, our faces covered with bandannas, but really we were a bunch of Goths and neo-hippies.  We were nineteen and twenty.  Half of us were only there to cut classes.”) to methodical and serious terrorist (“Here was one last chance to embrace that grand idea that things could get better, that they would get better, if we set out to make them so.  What was the alternative?”) is a believable counterpoint to Aidan’s inconsequential goings on.

The plot has all the drive of a thriller as the terrorists’ success at Barneys ratchets up their desire to take on a bigger target:  a media company headquarters.  Aidan finds himself in cahoots with the now disillusioned Paige as they join the old Weatherman to try to abort another bombing that clearly threatens lives.  Their most radical colleague has become enamored with the weapons rather than the ideals.  He reflects on his first action: “And the bomb, it went off without a hitch.  The timer, the wiring, everything worked perfectly.  Did you see the hole in the building?  It was really…beautiful.”   History reminds us that an idealist with a bomb may be our most dangerous citizen, and Goodwillie illustrates this with his well-paced conclusion.

Bigger Issues

“American Subversive” ambitiously tackles the big issues.  It is more than just a terrorist thriller or a clever itemization of our shallow follies and disjointed times.  Goodwillie is looking for a path that is wide enough to carry our load – our portmanteau of idealism AND disenchantment, loneliness AND love.

The first step is always self-understanding, and Aidan and Paige both find enough of it to divert themselves from their self-destructive ruts.  As Aidan says, “We were a tough lot to teach.  We only listened to ourselves…it’s not the time to sit tight.  No, it wasn’t.  I’d been sitting tight my entire life.”

As to whether this understanding is enough to create a new path, Goodwillie remains ambiguous.  He leaves a sort of compromise perspective to Aidan:  “Look, I’m not saying we’ve perfected anything here, but, hell, half the rest of the planet’s in flames.”  Maybe Goodwillie knows something about terrorism after all.

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