| 1999 | 1998 | Book
From the New Statesman
Manners review by Phil Whitaker
20 November 1998
Robert Newman's novel is narrated by a Metropolitan Police
constable in north London. The title, with its reference to anodyne English
comedy, is, as you might expect from one of the country's young funny
men, ironic: issues of class, race (timely in light of the Lawrence case)
and the nature of good and evil are woven into a blackly comic study of
the disturbed male psyche.
The opening scene has PC John Manners out on night patrol,
stalking a local "slag" called Lee Andrew. Suspected of several
rapes, Andrew has never been brought to trial. When Manners attempts to
arrest him, a vicious protracted fight ensues. Witnesses arrive to find
a bloodied, crazed Manners pounding a lifeless Andrew. Manners is suspended
awaiting trial. His warrant card is confiscated but he still retains his
uniform, his cuffs, the trappings of the job. He resumes his nightly patrols
on a "self-employed" basis. Divorced from the stabilising influence
of his colleagues, Manners' understanding of himself and his grip on reality
become ever more tenuous.
The darkness in the novel arises out of the interplay between
role and personality. Manners was a policeman, defender of the good life,
the victim's friend, all-round "thief-taker". In role, his personal
confusions were resolved: "The uniform did make the biggest difference,
change my face, my eyes, cancel my weakness, my fear . . . It felt like
how I would have been if every aspect of my upbringing had been positive."
Yet policing confronted him dally with evidence of the male capacity for
Through his relationship with a confident ex-policewoman
with a penchant for sexual masochism, Manners becomes aware of his own
ambivalent capacity for depravity. He experiments sexually; tentative
spanking quickly descends into extreme violence. "As soon as I came
I felt ill and scared . . . How could life continue the same? . . . But
her face was smiling so that meant everything was OK. Yeah, it meant everything
was fine." Then Manners encounters Lee Andrew, the embodiment of
the blackness he had begun to fear in his own heart.
Rob Newman has a voice and a natural style, even if there
is more than a hint of Martin Amis in his lowlife patois; the dark humour
and brilliant flashes of surrealism also remind me of Rupert Thompson.
A keen eye for imagery underpins our awareness of Manners' slow disintegration
- the flickering blue-and-white plastic tape around the generic crime
scene, for instance, with its endlessly repeating warning: "Police
Line Do Not Cross".
Yet there are flaws in this impressive work. In places,
jokes or exchanges between characters are too obviously contrived. Much
of the first part feels forced, with scenes from Manners' early life being
replayed rather self-consciously. And in the final quarter the control
weakens and the pace unravels.
Before publishing his first novel Newman, in tandem with
David Baddiel, acquired fame as a cult comedian, and his publishers continue
to make much of it. So is he just another celebrity novelist, achieving
publication through marketability rather than literary merit? Well, Manners
shows Newman, bravely, to be interested in exploring the depths of character
and in finding an original narrative voice. He is also prepared to take
risks; anyone writing about misogyny from a male perspective invites controversy.
And at its most ebullient - when image, idea and character spark and fuse
- the writing leaves you spellbound. Manners should win him renewed admiration.
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From The Guardian
Manners review by Carrie O'Grady
Saturday, 20 November 1999
I have a theory that comedians aren't actually funny, just
very, very perceptive. Certainly their novels are thin on laughs: Sean
Hughes, Ardal O'Hanlon and now Robert Newman have all produced grim, penetrating
books. Manners is the story of a cop troubled by his own capacity for
evil. "Stranded from reality, God and nature," he muses, "we
stand alone in a pitiless universe". Oh dear. As a meditation on
modern morality, though, and the function of justice in a corrupt society,
this is a really interesting read. Its dogged pessimism is relentless
but fertile; Newman has a gift for quick, razor-sharp aperçus that
open up wide expanses of ideas. One to read slowly, with a thoughtful
Extract from Phil Daoust's article in The Guardian about Comedians writing
8 July 2000
In a perfect world, those who have helped make British
TV comedy what it is (almost unmitigated rubbish) would be banned from
flytipping in the layby of literature. Failing that, their work would
carry big red warning stickers, and bookshop staff would hand out extra-long
bargepoles with which not to touch the product. There would be a few innocent
casualties, such as Robert Newman, whose novel about a policeman, Manners
, was almost enough to redeem the whole genre. But at least readers would
have some protection against the day when French and Saunders get it into
their heads that what the world really needs is 850 pages of flatulence
masquerading as a good read.
From The Guardian
The Fountain at the Centre of the World review by Ian Sansom
Saturday, 11 October 2003
Robert Newman is no
Tolstoy, says Ian Sansom, but the ambition and commitment of his anti-globalisation
novel The Fountain at the Centre of the World are refreshingly impressive
"What we need," according to Kafka, "are
books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone
we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had
been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide."
It may be for the best, then, that we don't always get what we need. Usually
we just get what we want, or what we deserve: ticklings, bluster, sub-porn,
and long, beautiful, but pointless jokes. We get novels that appeal to
our leastmost selves, paper substitutes for Friends or Eurotrash - something
suitable to go with a nice glass of Bailey's on ice. Dulling. Stupefaction.
But no, insisted Kafka, a book "must be the axe for the frozen sea
Well, fair play to him, Robert Newman is at least having a stab. He's
chipping away. He's chipping in. The Fountain at the Centre of the World
is 343 pages long; it is set in London, at the Seattle riots, in Mexico
and in Costa Rica. It's all about globalisation and the forces of resistance
against globalisation. It's more like nettle tea than Bailey's. It's like
bootleg Chomsky. It's refreshing.
To summarise a plot that swings long and hard between the symbolic and
the naturalistic: Chano Salgado is a Mexican political dissident; his
wife has been shot in the head by armed militia for having had the temerity
to attend a political meeting; he is persuaded to blow up a big corporation's
pipelines that are sucking the local groundwater dry; his young son Daniel
has disappeared; on the run, Chano miraculously meets up with his long-lost
brother Evan Hatch, who is a PR executive advising the very corporations
that are ensuring Chano's continuing oppression.
Evan is dying of a beetle-borne disease called chagas, and has travelled
to Mexico in search of a bone-marrow match with his brother. Daniel and
Chano and Evan all end up at the WTO protests in Seattle. The book is
about power and powerlessness, about Latin America and North America,
and about evil, harm, suffering and pain.
Clearly, if you're reading the Guardian you're going to want this to
work. You may not know it, but my guess is that deep down you're hankering
after what Hegel or someone like Hegel may have called "world-historical
fiction", a Tolstoy or a Kafka to speak to the anxieties and terrors
of our decadent age. Newman is not Tolstoy or Kafka, obviously - he used
to be the comedy partner of David Baddiel. But even so, he's pretty good
at conducting vast ensembles of relationships and following the displacements
of people due to political violence and economic inequality. He's also
good at describing random encounters with strangers. He's good on layers
of attachment and the fragility of human relationships. He handles his
complex plot with considerable skill. There are incredible coincidences
worthy of the best of 19th-century fiction, and lashings of very tasty
detail - lots of beef and juice on VNRs (video news releases), on "astroturf"
(fake grassroots movements), and on bomb-making (be careful). Even some
of the dialogue is quite good. If you get a chance, go to a bookshop and
read through pages 189-194. If you like this, you'll like the book.
But to warn you regarding the defects of this massive and noble endeavour:
when one supposes that one is addressing a grand theme, there's obviously
a temptation to adopt a certain tone of voice - the tone of voice of,
say, Andrey Zhadanov, or Maxim Gorky at an All-Union Congress of Soviet
Writers some time in the 1930s. A tone that resounds with moral superiority
and force. A tone that rings out clear and high above mere subjectivity
and the dull daily concerns of the bourgeoisie. In Newman's case this
means that there's quite a lot of this: "In the United States, the
Sierra Club had forced a Congressional ban on tuna fishing with purse-sein
nets, the Endangered Species Act (known as the Dolphin Death Act)."
And this: "Reflux is the process of boiling liquids so as to re-liquefy
all the vapour and return it to the original stock." And - a sure
sign of someone at pains to explain and get their point across - much
use of the parenthesis. "(In this instance the alphabet soup had
been spelt out thus: ICSID through NAFTA through WTO. But whatever the
arrangement of letters it was the same old toxins in the mulligatawny)."
Symbols can also prove pretty dangerous and cumbersome in the hands of
the radical and the revolutionary, and the symbolic fountain of Newman's
title is no exception. Chano helpfully wonders on Newman's behalf whether
the fountain at his local café "was a seismograph, its erratic
flow some kind of readout. Maybe it was the fountain at the centre of
the world, responding minutely to everything that's going on everywhere
on earth." Maybe it was, Chano. But maybe it was just a fountain.
These sorts of strains and glissades occasionally slip into actual half-truth
and folly. Newman mocks, for example, higher education in the way that
only someone who has had the considerable benefit of a higher education
might wish to do. "The real function of such an education was to
prepare the money by teaching it the folly of social change; how a belief
in humanity is only available to those who have no knowledge of it."
When he comes over all sixth-formery like this you just want to start
quoting Matthew Arnold or WEB du Bois at him: "The great men of culture
are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for
carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the
best ideas of their time, who have laboured to divest knowledge of all
that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive;
to humanise it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated
and learned." That's Matthew Arnold. That's education. That, in fact,
is what Robert Newman BA (Hons) is doing in writing his novel.
Despite these odd inconsistencies and failings, though, The Fountain
at the Centre of the World is a serious and intelligent book. It's a novel
that confronts everything that is wrong with the world and demands that
which is right, and it therefore makes a lot of British fiction seem rather
tender-minded in comparison.
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From The Independent
The Fountain at the Centre of the World review
by Jean McNeil
Friday, 24th October 2003
Power but no glory
in the new Mexico
Robert Newman's second novel [sic] is an unfashionable and
spirited attempt to reconcile the larger forces at work in the world through
fiction. Could this herald a resuscitation of the English "literary
political novel", almost dead in the water since the best work of
Malcolm Lowry and Graham Greene?
The story begins with Evan Hatch (with a name like that, we know he's
the bad guy), a suited corporate soldier suffering from Chagas disease.
Long the terror of health sections in Latin American guidebooks, Chagas
is a beetle-borne ailment with no cure, apart from a bone-marrow transplant.
In an antiseptic City office, Evan deter- mines to find a donor in the
form of his lost brother in Mexico. Two more narrative threads emerge:
that of Chano Salgado, a Mexican activist and homemade bomb-maker ("not
terrorist", he insists in one of the many stilted and polemic exchanges)
agitating against the corporate interests that Evan represents. And soon
we meet Daniel, a Mexican orphan taken to Costa Rica, currently packing
bell peppers for a multinational but determined to return.
The manner in which these disparate stories intertwine and clash is appealing.
One cheers Newman's project to give life and voice to environmental degradation,
neo-liberal economics and, on a more profound level, the cynicism that
drives these forces of exploitation. Even better, he has set his schema
in Mexico and Central America, the frontline, thanks to Nafta, of globalisation.
Such zestful fictionalising of wider realities is impossible to dismiss.
Certainly, any novel that opens with a dig against Colombian president
Pastrana and the "war on drugs" wins this reviewer's heart.
But then there's the matter of what literary fiction is: that delicate,
subversive terrain most fertile when doused with subjectivity. The
Fountain at the Centre of the World creaks under the strain of theme
What exactly is the place of essay-lets on bomb-making and tuna quotas
in fiction? Sure, we admire the ploughing through Chomsky and Zinn. But
the resulting hard fact is plonked on the page in a Greenpeace-vs-the-Foreign-Office
manner that effectively cancels the reader-author contract. While Newman
does give his characters an ostensible inner life, they lack the textures
of psychological veracity which convinces us of lived experiences.
This marriage of the internal and subjective with external processes
was the great achievement of the political novel, at least as penned by
Lowry and Greene. Such a comparison is patently unfair, but then Newman
must realise that he has to do more than step lightly in a land where
stones are sharp. But he has at least taken a rare risk for our mortgage-panic,
leather-sofa era, to remind us how the personal is political - and vice
to the top
From The New York Times
Review by Dwight Garner
Sunday, 1st February 2004
'The Fountain at
the Center of the World': The Battle of Seattle
All novels are, to some extent, political novels -- that is, they are
concerned with the nature and deployment of power. But some novels are
pushier about their agendas than others. Take Robert Newman's ''Fountain
at the Center of the World.'' It's a mucky title for a sublimely frisky
novel, one that throws more acid-tipped darts at Nafta and the World Trade
Organization than a foot-high stack of Mother Jones and Nation back issues.
Newman's book follows three characters (one in London, one in Mexico,
one in Costa Rica) in the years leading up to the 1999 W.T.O. protests
in Seattle, and it reads like what you'd get if Tom Wolfe clambered inside
the head of Noam Chomsky -- it elegantly and angrily scorches a lot of
earth. You wouldn't want to read many novels that were as hyper-politicized
as this one is, but there's something almost old-fashioned about the way
Newman wears his heart utterly on his sleeve.
I wouldn't be surprised, in fact, if ''The Fountain at the Center of the
World'' became the talismanic ''Catch-22'' of the antiglobalization protest
movement, the fictional complement to Naomi Klein's influential treatise
''No Logo.'' Expect to see copies of it peeking out of battered rucksacks
from Berkeley to Burlington. Though if you are the kind of person who
will want to retch at the notion of a novel in which one of the primary
characters is named after Daniel Ortega, consider yourself warned.
Newman is such a fleet and funny writer -- in a scene set during one
protest march, cops don't merely arrest the ''legal observers in lime-green
bibs,'' they snatch them ''like a fruit particularly delicious to the
gorilla'' -- that you will begin to ask yourself, about 10 pages into
the novel, Who is this guy? Newman, it turns out, is a big deal in his
native England. He's a 39-year-old chain-smoking political comedian who,
in the late 80's and early 90's, was a cast member of a very silly and
very popular comedy show called ''Mary Whitehouse Experience,'' which
ran on BBC radio and television. (A video of the group's sold-out performance
in Wembley Arena sold 800,000 copies in its first three days of release.)
In recent years Newman has largely abandoned performing for fiction;
he has published two previous novels in Britain, though this is his first
to be issued here. But he remains so popular over there that a BBC documentary
was made about the writing of ''The Fountain at the Center of the World.''
It's pretty entertaining, too, for a film that often seems to consist
of shots of Newman pacing outside while taking nervous drags on his cigarette.
None of this would matter if Newman didn't deliver on the page, but he
does -- his characters squirm to life, and his punches land. The problem
with most left-leaning novels is that they're as earnest and mopey as
a Sarah McLachlan ballad on a rainy day. ''The Fountain at the Center
of the World,'' on the other hand, is as ferocious as a jar of freeze-dried
Paul Krugman columns.
At its bleeding heart, this book is a Dickensian adoption novel -- it's
about two Mexican-born brothers, Evan and Chano, who have never met. Evan
was adopted by English parents, went to Cambridge and is now a high-level
corporate flack; Chano was raised by Mexican relatives and now makes beer
in a shack in northeastern Mexico. Both men are desperately looking for
something. Evan has discovered he has leukemia and needs to find Chano
for a blood and bone marrow transfusion. Chano is searching for his own
son, Daniel, who was also given up for adoption and believes Chano is
Newman is as good on Evan's world as he is on Chano's. He nails the trappings
of Evan's life, including the ''weird corporate glamour'' that comes with
dressing impeccably while at the same time looking wizened and ill. Evan
is an expert at massaging public opinion for his multinational clients;
he keeps ''hands-on control of the intellectual thermostat'' surrounding
globalization issues, and is fully cognizant of the fact that ''it is
easier and less costly to change the way people think about reality than
to change reality.''
To spend time with Evan is to get a master class in how P.R. guys deploy
their resources, from how to ruin an opponent's book tour to why certain
kinds of advertisements are more important than others. You know those
enormous, full-color, nonspecific corporate ads that you sometimes see
in magazines and newspapers, the ones with the company's name under, say,
a photograph of a leopard beside a waterfall? Here's Evan's take on producing
one of those: ''It's not for the readers, it's for the owners. The message
says We are your largest advertisers. We giveth and we taketh away. And
that's all. The more profligate you are with the space the stronger that
message comes across. . . . Anything to take up a double page.''
Evan ultimately leaves London to look for his brother in Mexico, but
Chano can't be found -- he's a bumbling eco-terrorist on the lam after
a halfhearted attempt to sabotage a toxic waste plant that was polluting
the groundwater in his town. Chano is as jumpy and conflicted as a character
in a T. C. Boyle novel, and his usually mushy politics come in for almost
as much fire as Evan's. Chano is one of those guys, another character
observes, who always shy away from recommending direct action while managing
to ''sound more revolutionary than everybody else in the process.''
Upon Evan's arrival in Mexico, the action of ''The Fountain at the Center
of the World'' grows almost absurdly complicated -- there is a plot to
privatize the world's water supply, multiple dangerous border crossings,
surprises about the nature of Evan's illness and, once all the characters
arrive in the Pacific Northwest, some startlingly vivid scenes of the
Seattle W.T.O. protests. Newman writes about all these things like a man
who has done his research. But he is just as good on the little things
-- how it feels to be seriously ill in a remote foreign country or how
Chano's son's face ''was transnationally identifiable: he had that look
of the international poor (and would've had even in brand-new clothes).''
Newman's book is about as bleak as a comic novel can be, but he leaves
multinational corporations, at least, with some room for optimism. Once
the cheap labor has vanished in Mexico, they can still move to other countries.
And after that, there's always the hope of finding ''little green women
in space'' to exploit.
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From Philadelphia City Paper
by Jason Bauer
February 26-March 3, 2004
With Michael Moore proclaiming our times are surreal, and with Jon Stewart
rapidly becoming our finest political commentator, comedy seems to have
become the new bully pulpit. British comedian Robert Newman, touring with
a standup show called "From Caliban to the Taliban: 500 Years of
Humanitarian Intervention" and a new novel, is committed to using
that pulpit for all that it's worth. Newman carries an excellent pedigree,
as a former member of the Mary Whitehouse Experience troupe and as a protégé
of the late Bill Hicks. But his work as a funnyman, albeit a politically
charged one, makes for a single facet of his work. Newman's new novel,
The Fountain at the Center of the World (Soft Skull Press), is informed
as much by his prominent anti-globalization stance as it is by hands-on
research (on fishing trawlers, in tropical disease hospitals). And the
novel, which centers on two separated-at-birth brothers on opposite sides
of the barricades of the '99 WTO protests in Seattle, has subtlety and
nuance that more than excuse the bluntness of its ideology. It's one part
tearjerker, and one part Greenpeace screed. Newman's Philadelphia tour
stop should probe the same set of anti-globalization concerns that drive
his novel, and while it may lack the same subtlety and nuance, it's certain
to share the same passionate commitments, and to be funnier to boot.
Robert Newman, Sun., Feb. 29, 9 p.m., free, A-Space, 4722 Baltimore Ave.,
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Review by Andrew O'Hehir
Monday, 8th March 2004
at the Center of the World" by Robert Newman
A sweeping social novel veers from corporate London to rural Mexico to
the fateful street protests of 1999 Seattle. Is it graceful and elegant?
Not so much. But you won't soon forget it.
The anti-globalization movement may not quite have found its Dante or
its Homer in British writer Robert Newman, but it's found something, all
right -- maybe its Theodore Dreiser. Newman, the author of two previous
novels published in the United Kingdom, makes a splashy, messy American
debut with "The Fountain at the Center of the World," an ambitious
and occasionally thrilling book that takes you from a NAFTA-impoverished
Mexican village to the sleek corporate hallways of the City of London
to the now-legendary street demonstrations at the World Trade Organization's
1999 Seattle meeting.
Newman is himself a veteran street-level activist, having worked with
such groups as Reclaim the Streets, Indymedia, Earth First! and the longshoremen
of Liverpool. He writes about the decentralized, ragtag fringes of the
contemporary left with affection and a wry eye for detail; if you've been
to the chai-drinking meetings he describes, in underheated basements crowded
with folding chairs and broken sofas, you'll recognize a fellow traveler.
While this book is frankly ideological -- to put it mildly, Newman takes
a dim view of the neoliberal "free trade" agenda -- he's too
interested in his characters, both the noble and the despicable, to turn
any of them into cartoons.
As is almost inevitable in any story that depicts a struggle between
good and evil (however finely nuanced the details may be), Newman's villain,
a high-powered English marketing consultant named Evan Hatch, is his most
seductive character. An expert in molding public opinion to ease the grand
transnational glide of the world's biggest corporations, Evan is not entirely
a soulless trail of slime -- but he's pretty close. He does, however,
face a compelling predicament: He's dying of a disease the best doctors
in London have been unable to diagnose. Their best bet is that it's a
rare form of leukemia that might be curable with a bone marrow transplant
from a close relative. But Evan was adopted -- his birth parents are unknown,
and his biological brother, if he's even alive, is probably still in Tonalacapan,
the remote village in northern Mexico where Evan was born.
Evan's brother, Chano, wouldn't you know, is himself a battle-hardened
activist against the corporate forces that have devastated his home region,
with Evan's considerable help. Against his better judgment, Chano is enticed
into a harebrained plot to blow up the water pipes into a plant that is
poisoning Tonalacapan's groundwater. Newman never pretends to be a neutral
observer of the events he describes, but he's too good a writer not to
see how often leftists are lured into self-destructive behavior by their
disorganization, their paranoia, their vainglorious dreams. And meanwhile
(this is a novelist, ladies and gentlemen, who understands the value of
a yarn that will keep you turning the pages), Chano's estranged teenage
son Daniel has made his way from Costa Rica to Tonalacapan, only to become
a pawn in a game run by a ruthless smuggler and the town's showily incorruptible
new police chief.
Newman effectively dramatizes the way that globalization has changed
the world, not so much through what it has brought to places like Tonalacapan
but because of the unlikely combinations it makes possible. Brothers who
live 6,000 miles apart will be reunited, with unpredictable consequences;
an Englishman is thrown into a filthy Mexican river while a Mexican is
thrown (by a Bosnian crew) into the North Sea; distributed all over the
hemisphere, this novel's characters end up colliding in Seattle during
the fateful WTO meeting that forever changed the world's view of the globalization
But you can feel a "but" coming, can't you? The scope and daring
and sensibility of "The Fountain at the Center of the World"
are so gratifying I wish I could tell you it wasn't riddled with little
irritants. Chano and Daniel are ingratiating figures, but the Mexican
setting and characters that take up much of the novel are sometimes wooden
and border on stereotype. Newman allegedly can speak Spanish, but he definitely
can't write it; almost anytime he tries to represent Mexican dialogue
or place names, he screws up. He spells the word "maquiladora"
with a double-L (suggesting an incorrect pronunciation), seems to think
that "favela" is the Spanish word for an improvised slum neighborhood
(it's Brazilian Portuguese), uses the Italian "Signor" instead
of "Señor" and consistently spells the not-very-obscure
Mexican state of Sonora as "Sonoa."
Scott Fitzgerald, one might reasonably argue, couldn't spell "cat"
if you spotted him two letters and handed him a dictionary. To some extent
that's what editors are for, and the folks at Soft Skull Press must shoulder
some of the blame for these distractions, which left me mumbling and cursing
every few pages. On the other hand, without the efforts of a fearless
small press, we might never have found out about Robert Newman, with all
his bravery and hectoring, his often glorious descriptive passages, and
his blazing, Dickensian vision of a global network of ordinary people,
accidentally empowered by capitalism, who might make a new kind of world
at least theoretically possible. So it's worth the aggravation after all.
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From Citypages.com Vol. 25 #1215
Review by Jesse Berrett
Wednesday, 17th March 2004
Novelist Robert Newman is ready to blow some shit up
Robert Newman's anti-globalist saga makes you feel good about yourself.
Just toting it around gave me a feeling of superiority over the legions
who are still breaking the Da Vinci Code, and even over anyone confident
enough to bust out mere literary fiction on public transit. This righteous
novel is the bookworm's SUV.
Which is a status not to be sneezed at. The question is whether The Fountain
at the Center of the World is "good" like wheat germ, or actually
a pleasurable work of literature. Reading it, I couldn't help thinking
of John Sayles. Whereas Sayles's fiction looks wryly at the particulars
of daily life, his films (Matewan, Men with Guns) can be enervatingly
even-handed. Though his works always stand on the right side of big issues,
Sayles ends up there only after profound reflection and reasoned consideration,
having given every party the fullest opportunity to air its point of view.
Too often, the product simply sits admirably there, urging you to approve
of it without enjoying it very much. Making it to the conclusion of 2002's
Sunshine State feels good in the sense that enduring boot camp must.
Like Sayles, Robert Newman takes a Wobbly's view of the working world,
one that's deeply sympathetic to backwoods farm collectives in Mexico,
runty English trawler crews, and even the office wars waged by soulless
PR flacks. (The back-cover biography assures you in rampant detail that
he knows whereof he speaks. Before Newman turned to writing, he won note
in his native Great Britain as a comedian, after working for years as
a farmhand, house painter, mail sorter, and social worker, among other
occupations.) His leftism is never a compendium of lecture-room abstractions:
"class," "oppression," "the poor." Newman
inhabits the struggles of the downtrodden, rendering each case of suffering
fresh, specific, and personal in its endless detail.
Here's a peasant woman subsiding into exhaustion after a punishing day's
drive: "She sits on the fountain ledge as if she has been deposited
there. The sun heats one side of her, but only in the way it heats a brown
canvas bag hanging on a nail, not like it heats crocus, water, dog, burro,
soil, algae, woman, man."
He traces the veins of the corporate-industrial complex with equal vividness:
"You don't have to win the argument, said Evan [the PR flack]. It's
more like you just want to put a weight of impressions on the public mind
so that people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. You
just want them to go: Oh, things are really complicated--it's not so simple
as I thought."
Most of all, Newman knows what it feels like when a surge of assurance
ramps up a protest into something that feels world-historic, even when
it's not. And he knows equally well the resigned shudder when a phalanx
of marching troops swings into place down the street.
But the creaky plot mechanics--a Prince and the Pauper shtick becomes
obvious on page nine--detract from the humane momentum of Newman's ceaseless
imagination. No matter their individual force, his characters feel moored
in schematic and predictable circumstances. Once Newman has introduced
his cast in the first 20 pages, their ultimate trajectory feels fated
even before the reader espies the words "Seattle" and "WTO"
on the back cover. The PR flack will confront his heartlessness. The peasant
revolutionary will blow up something really big. You kind of wish the
characters would just hurry up and get where they're going already.
Other tics are more endearing. Newman is the kind of lefty who makes
room for personal politics. He can't help himself from spending most of
a page tearing into Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad,
an 1886 case in which the Supreme Court deemed a corporation a person.
Maybe it's a revolutionary gesture or maybe it's simply obsessive devotion
to his research (he's like a Tom Wolfe detoured to the good). Either way
Newman doesn't skip a single step in detailing the mechanics of bomb-making
and corporate sabotage. In a similar fashion, the author has crafted a
rather effective bomb, but a less successful novel.
# Robert Newman reads 7:00 P.M. Thursday, March 18 at Arise! Bookstore
and Resource Center, 2441 Lyndale Ave. S. in Minneapolis; 612.871.7110.
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From The News Tribune
Review by Sam McManis
Sunday, 21st March 2004
Novel set amid
War novels need not revel in bloodshed and closely document inhumane
horrors to be viscerally effective. Nor must they even be about war in
the conventional shock-and-awe sense.
So you could say the best war novel on the shelves now is Robert Newman's
"The Fountain at the Center of the World," which made a splash
last year in Great Britain (comparisons were made with Graham Greene)
and has just been released in the United States.
War in question: the Battle of Seattle.
That would be the 1999 World Trade Organization riots, of course. Loosely
termed, it qualifies as a four-day "war" in pitting anti-globalization
protesters against trade delegates, represented in "combat"
by the Seattle police and Washington State Patrol troopers. But, really,
this was an ideological and socioeconomic battle that raged across borders
between and first and third worlds - and rages still.
It isn't until the final third of Newman's novel that the chaotic scenes
of shattered storefronts, rubber bullets and squashed hopes and skulls
are delivered in such vivid detail that the readers can almost feel the
singeing tear gas. And that's a wise move by Newman. Had he presented
this story in medias res, we would have been forced to choose sides between
stock characters - anarchist protesters vs. oppressive authority figures.
Rather, by the time "The Fountain at the Center of the World"
hits the Seattle corner of Fifth and Pike, readers are already committed
to seeing the personal in the political, because they've experienced the
human side of the globalization debate. We've spent 200 pages engrossed
in the lives of a British public-relations spinmeister for free-traders,
a Mexican campesino struggling to save the very soil of his homeland from
a U.S. corporation's drilling, and a teenage Costa Rican trying to make
his way in the world and find his long-lost father.
All three characters are blood relations. The spinmeister, Evan Hatch,
is the brother of the campesino, Chano Salgado - Evan was adopted as a
baby by a British couple after the boys became orphaned, while the older
Chano stayed in Mexico. Daniel Salgado, son of Chano, was sent to relatives
in Costa Rica after his father was believed to be dead when, in actuality,
he was a political prisoner.
If it sounds complicated, even a bit implausible, that's because it is.
But Newman packs even more into plot. Chano is on the lam in an ecological
preserve after blowing up a pipeline, so he never meets his returning
son. Evan, who believes he has a rare form of leukemia, goes to Mexico
to find Chano for a bone marrow transfusion. It turns out, however, that
Evan has Chagas' Disease, a rare, fatal, tropical illness - "it feeds
on the blood of the poor," Chano tells him - that he acquired as
an infant. Daniel, meanwhile, flees police wanting to use him as ransom
for his fugitive father and stows away on a cargo ship and winds up in
a British immigrant detention center.
Whew. So much coincidence and naturalism happen that the reader might
think he stepped into a Stephen Crane novel. But, somehow, Newman makes
the implausible plausible as he positions all three characters on the
streets of Seattle for the WTO talks.
Though Newman - a political comedian who formerly had a BBC television
show - makes no secret that his sympathies lie with the anti-globalization
faction, the novel is not a polemic per se.
All the characters are expertly drawn, even Evan, the corporate apologist
whose motto is "it is easier and less costly to change the way people
think about reality than to change reality." Evan is not the personification
of evil, as he might have been in less sure novelistic hands, and he even
makes a compelling case for free trade and large corporations.
"Outsiders always thought of corporations as faceless monoliths,
cold and robotic and full of drones, but to Evan each firm seemed just
the opposite," Newman writes. "If anything, he felt, they were
more like some kind of group-therapy battalion."
Chano, the radical, isn't as dogmatic as he may at first seem, either.
He has seen his share of sorrow and disappointments in "the movement,"
not he least of which was the assassination of his wife and the estrangement
of his son. Newman writes that "Chano had also seen how, whenever
things came to a head, capitalism could always co-opt a movement's reformists
and isolate its radicals." Yet he also thinks that "the billions
spent on corporate propaganda and repression were testament to the power
By the onset of the "Battle of Seattle," as Newman titles Part
Four, Evan and Chano are both in for "paradigm shifts," and
Daniel comes of age dodging bullets and tear gas and eventually finds
his place in the world as an anti-globalist.
And while Newman may not totally succeed in changing our view of reality
- or our memories of the Seattle protests - he at least gives us a glimpse
of what each side is thinking.
to the top
By Ben Williams
Friday, 26th March 2004
The Fountain at
the Center of the World, by Robert Newman (Soft Skull Press).
This British antiglobalization novel, which culminates at the 1999 Seattle
protests against the World Trade Organization, "reads like what you'd
get if Tom Wolfe clambered inside the head of Noam Chomsky," according
to the New York Times"it elegantly and angrily scorches a lot
of earth." Yet while the book "is frankly ideological,"
says Salon, Newman is "too interested in his characters, both the
noble and the despicable, to turn any of them into cartoons." Most
reviewers are happy to follow the Dickensian narrative around the globe,
from "keen observations of everyday life in Mexican villages"
to "chaotic scenes" rendered "in such vivid detail that
the readers can almost feel the singeing tear gas." But the Minneapolis/St.
Paul City Pages complains about "creaky plot mechanics" and
calls this "the bookworm's SUV": "Just toting it around
gave me a feeling of superiority over the legions who are still breaking
The Da Vinci Code." (Buy The Fountain at the Center of the World.)
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