Pillars of the Community
By Gary Krist
By Stephen Amidon
Doubleday. 445 pp. $24.95
Is there any target more tempting to a novelist than a self-styled utopia? Fiction writers, after all, earn their keep by chronicling the weaknesses of human nature-the inevitable acts of selfishness, misunderstanding, and betrayal that turn bland existence into shapely, dramatic narrative. Perfection, on the other hand, is anti-narrative, as boring as it is unrealistic (which is why everyone reads Dante's Inferno but few slog through his Paradiso). As connoisseurs of the shattered dream, novelists know that there is only one appropriate way to greet idealistic notions about the perfectibility of humankind-i.e., with sharpened knives.
It's this healthy attitude that Stephen Amidon displays in his ambitious fifth book, The New City. The utopia he skewers is the fictional city of Newton, Maryland, a planned community of the early 1970s envisioned as "a remedy for the social chaos gripping the nation." According to its designer, an aging architect named Barnaby Vine, Newton was to be a "place where people would finally start living like they could…. People of different races and backgrounds would live together here. There would be no ghettos of poverty or privilege." In a country consumed by the divisiveness of Watergate, Vietnam, urban decay, and racial strife, Newton would be an oasis of social harmony.
This vision, not surprisingly, proves to be a tad over-optimistic. As The New City opens, the bulldozers haven't even left the building lots and already Newton is manifesting just the kind of racial tensions it was supposed to eliminate. A miniature riot breaks out at the local youth center, pitting black teenagers from the city's HUD projects against recent white migrants from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. And there are other, more metaphorical signs that the social chemistry of Newton might not be as successful as planned. Fish are dying by the hundreds in the manmade lake. Japanese beetles infest the decorative arbors. Even the picturesque gaslights dotting the city's lawns are mysteriously exploding.
Amidon, who spent his early teens in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, is obviously skeptical about the kind of social engineering exemplified by projects like Newton. But like any good dramatist, he embodies his critique in the story of individuals-namely, Austin Swope and Earl Wooten, the men who together were responsible for bringing Barnaby Vine's dream to reality. Swope, a white lawyer with political aspirations, was in charge of buying the land and getting the city up and running; Wooten, a black construction-company owner, built every structure in it from the ground up. In the years since the project began, the two of them-solid family men who could serve as dictionary definitions of the term "pillars of the community"-have become best friends, living affirmation of Vine's hopeful vision. But when the city's parent corporation calls Wooten out to Chicago for a secret meeting, a misunderstanding ensues that eventually draws both men and their families into a catastrophe of almost Shakespearean proportions.
Believing-mistakenly--that his friend is being offered the job of city manager he wants for himself, Swope wastes no time in launching a campaign to undermine Wooten's reputation in the community. Enlisting a misfit Vietnam vet to act as his private investigator, Swope discovers and makes known the fact that Wooten is having an extramarital affair. With similarly breathtaking treachery, he conspires to implicate the builder in a bogus corruption scheme, and even resorts to blatant (though anonymous) race-baiting in order to incite Wooten to violence.
The full extent of Swope's perfidy, however, becomes clear only late in the novel, after his son Teddy accidentally causes the drowning death of a teenage girl. Abandoning the last vestiges of his integrity, Swope convinces Teddy to manufacture a story pinning responsibility for the death on Wooten's son Joel (never mind that the two boys, like their fathers, are alleged best friends). And when the dead girl's distraught father, who just happens to be the Vietnam vet in Swope's employ, starts hunting for Joel with his old army pistol in hand, the elements of a major catastrophe are neatly in place.
What follows is a lavishly tragic denouement that, while harrowing, comes off as just a little too contrived and melodramatic. Amidon manipulates his characters heavy-handedly, pushing them toward actions that seem motivated less by any believable internal logic than by a desire to heighten the pathos and advance the author's agenda. The ease with which Swope betrays his friend, for instance, seems patently unrealistic; wouldn't he confront Wooten with his suspicions before destroying the man's life on a rumor? And could Swope realistically expect his goofy if brilliant son to frame a childhood buddy for murder (and to do so convincingly) rather than report the death as an unfortunate accident? But since the character of Swope is meant to epitomize a certain kind of fair-weather white progressive-one willing to support black empowerment only until it begins to threaten his own white privilege-credible behavior must be sacrificed to expediency.
In the end, though, these flaws are not enough to negate the real achievement of Amidon's novel. The New City stands as a kind of modern-day Othello, a powerful and perceptive novel about an ideal of racial harmony "killed by a single malignant drop of suspicion." And at a time when planned communities are coming back into vogue, his cautionary tale seems especially relevant. As Teddy himself remarks, "It was amazing how a select group of highly educated people could so blatantly miss the fundamental truth of the matter. Humans were not good. Progress was not possible. The future was not rosy." That sentiment might seem somewhat pessimistic, but you'll find precious little evidence in Amidon's novel to contradict it.
By Gary Krist, whose most recent novel is "Chaos Theory"
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