'American Subversive': A Terrorist Love Story

American Subversive
American Subversive
By David Goodwillie
Hardcover, 320 pages
Scribner
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Aidan Cole is a fundamentally nice Manhattan 30-something who writes a gossipy media blog by day and barhops with oily Latin American playboys by night. One of the two narrators of American Subversive, David Goodwillie's rumbustious first novel, Aidan questions and laments the superficiality of his world even as he revels in its glamour.

Narrating alternating chapters is Paige Roderick, a fundamentally nice 29-year-old terrorist bomber from North Carolina. Radicalized by her brother's death in Iraq, Paige now orchestrates conflagrations at various targets in New York City, including the Barneys building. Paige questions and laments the violence of her work, even as she dutifully carries it out.

The unlikely relationship between these two lost souls is the shaky storyline on which Goodwilliie hangs his engrossing, sometimes very funny, wildly overstuffed novel. When an anonymous source e-mails Aidan a photograph of Paige departing the scene of a bombing (she looks "like a European beauty hastening past a group of lecherous men"), the previously aimless and hedonistic blogger promptly throws himself into pursuing her. She represents something powerful and pure to jaded Aidan, this "bomb-building revolutionary mocking the poisoned culture that consumed the rest of us."

Goodwillie's ambitions with this book are many, varied and often conflicting. To start with, he wants to take an earnest moral inventory of America in the wake of the Iraq war, and numerous long-winded passages are devoted to this end. He's considerably more amusing when he skewers the contemporary digital chattering class, with juicy descriptions of slick Internet entrepreneurs and drunken Manhattan loft parties. He also sends Aidan on a field trip to suburbia to mingle with some pathetic aging liberals ("they combated globalization by drinking free-trade coffee, rescued the environment one energy-saving light bulb at a time") and one spectacularly vulgar Connecticut trophy wife.

David Goodwillie i i

hide captionDavid Goodwillie has worked as a private investigator, professional baseball player and Sotheby's auction house expert.

Alexandra Rowley
David Goodwillie

David Goodwillie has worked as a private investigator, professional baseball player and Sotheby's auction house expert.

Alexandra Rowley

But when he's not having bitchy fun with these ancillary caricatures, Goodwillie wants us to fully invest in the bland romance between Aidan and Paige, which involves much sincere baring of souls. Somehow, the couple manages these tender interludes while racing from apartment to anonymous hot-sheet hotel to grungy safe house, dyeing hair and ditching identities like characters in a Robert Ludlum novel. Goodwillie is a terrific and observant writer, but even he can't roll political critique, social comedy, fast-paced thriller and mushy love story into one convincing package.

Excerpt: 'American Subversive'

American Subversive
By David Goodwillie
Hardcover, 320 pages
Scribner
List price: $25

I went through it all again. Tiles and mirrors, toilets and drains. Hair in the shower, toothpaste in the sink. When they found the house, they would probably already know who we were. Still, I cleaned. There was nothing else to do. When I finished, I drifted over to the computer and checked the news sites for the latest on Indigo, but nothing came up. Soon enough, I was browsing Roorback, looking for clues. An explanation. Keith had a point: Why was Aidan risking so much when he could risk nothing and become famous? Isn't that what people like him wanted, that one great story to dine out on?

How long was I online? Three hours? Four? An afternoon spent reading sardonic posts — a celebration of useless information that epitomized the reasons I'd fled New York, and then Washington, and then, finally, myself.

It was getting dark out. I'd been claustrophobic for weeks, but now, left alone in a house where I could touch no surfaces, left alone to guard a locked bomb factory, the feeling overwhelmed me. I walked outside and sat down in the grass. The universe was contracting, the stars like stars in a planetarium — penned in. A terrible thought dawned on me, and when it came clear, when I realized I'd probably just been set up, it was far too late to do anything about it. I'd been a fool. Keith had packed his muse into the car and together they'd vanished, as they'd first appeared, another couple on another road. And why should they come back? I was a liability now — personally and professionally. I lit a cigarette. Had I failed or had Keith? I'd followed the rules as he'd crumbled under their weight. I'd stayed consistent while he'd transformed before my eyes, become everything he'd preached against. A fateful moment of lust and our tight and vital lives had come apart. Now he was off to precipitate an Action he couldn't justify, an Action planned so loosely, so quickly, that it seemed the work of another man entirely. Was he even going to New York? Or had he lied about that, too? He was gone and Lindsay was gone and I'd been left as a sacrifice to the gods, or worse, the authorities, because they were coming, weren't they? Keith knew it and so he fled. They would come roaring in with vests and helmets and a hundred guns, and if they didn't shoot me on sight, they'd take me in, an enemy combatant. The perfect proof that terror takes all forms.

But didn't Keith think I'd talk? Rat them out as he'd ratted on me (because, really, who else could it have been)? I could broker a deal with the Feds, tell them all I knew, except I knew nothing. I'd wandered blind through these last months, stupidly equating my doubts with some lack of faith or courage. Maybe Keith was betting I'd stay loyal to the end — the confession room with the two-way mirror. Meanwhile, they could set off the N3 bomb, and then a dozen more, and truly turn the country around. Was that our purpose? Did we ever even have one — an endgame, I mean?

I was becoming paranoid, unhinged. I lit another cigarette from the end of the first. I'd never smoked like this, like I needed to, but I inhaled and for a moment felt better. I didn't have an addictive personality, had never smoked much weed or binged on cocaine, and yet I was now an extremist, a person who had stepped forcefully over the lines that defined contemporary life, and then turned around and tried to erase them. That I would come to crave something would follow, but cigarettes? Still, it was a way to stay occupied, the endless fiddling with matches and lighters. I stood up and the nicotine rushed to my head. My eyes had adjusted to the dark and I could see the outline of the woods, hear the rustle and crunch of what lay beyond, nature repositioning itself — if the noises were natural at all. Turning then, I saw the garage, a black square in the near distance, eerie and foreboding. I paused, took one last drag, and went back inside.

I was wired. I lay on the mattress fully clothed (gloves on my hands, shoes on my feet), tossing and turning like a child on the last night of summer. Occasionally, I could hear a car out on the road, and in that netherworld of half-dreams I imagined it pulling into the driveway, and then my name through a bullhorn, and the flood of lights.

From American Subversive by David Goodwillie. Copyright 2010 by David Goodwillie. Reprinted with permission of Scribner. All rights reserved.

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