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'American Subversive': A Terrorist Love Story

by Jennifer Reese
Apr 28, 2010

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Jennifer Reese

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.

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.

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