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Book Reviews

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 violence.

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 expression.



Extract from Phil Daoust's article in The Guardian about Comedians writing novels
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 within us".

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 and information.

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 versa.

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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 dead.

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., 215-727-0882.

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From Salon
Review by Andrew O'Hehir
Monday, 8th March 2004

"The Fountain 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 process.

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

Servile Masses Arise, Arise!
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.

Calendar Info
# 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 WTO riots

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 people had."

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.

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From Slate
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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