Servile Masses Arise, Arise!

Your choice: Either sing along to "The Internationale" or talk to the clown. Novelist and comedian Robert Newman
Courtesy of Soft Skull Press
Robert Newman
The Fountain at the Center of the World
Soft Skull Press

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.

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