Roger Gathman

Americans love frontiers. Unexpectedly, one emerged in Eastern Europe when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. The Gen X crowd went in droves to Prague and Moscow, and in smaller trickles to Budapest, Hungary, the setting for Arthur Phillips' ironically named first novel, Prague.

The time is 1990, and the gold rush is on for that eminently desirable thing called experience. The action revolves around a group of four Americans who socialize with each other in a select circuit of bars and cafes. In the case of Mark Payton, the American label is a mistake: Mark is actually Canadian. A graduate student, he wants to turn his dissertation about the culture and architecture of nostalgia into a book. For Scott Price, Budapest is a way station on a prolonged therapeutic escape from his family and history, which he blames for all his problems. Much to Scott's displeasure, his younger brother John has followed him to Budapest. John, whose point of view dominates the novel, is 24, an anomalous virgin with the habit common to his generation of turning his personal contradictions into easy ironies. During the course of the novel, while pursuing his obsession with Emily Oliver, an attaché to the American ambassador, John will lose his virginity to Nicki, an in-your-face artist with a shaved head.

John's sensitivity to Hungarian culture doesn't prevent him from being instrumental in ripping it off as part of a scheme cooked up by Charles Gabor, another member of the group. A native of Michigan, Charles actually speaks Hungarian, a linguistic gift he owes to his parents, refugees from the unsuccessful 1956 revolt against the Russians.

Although the beginning of the book is a bit bumpy with stage-setting, once we have a sense of Phillips' characters, their trajectories are moving, funny and above all, interesting. They never quite find the experience they're searching for, but in the process they turn a concrete, historically autonomous place like Budapest into a crossroads of peculiarly American schemes and dreams.

Roger Gathman is a freelance writer based in Austin.

 

Americans love frontiers. Unexpectedly, one emerged in Eastern Europe when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. The Gen X crowd went in droves to Prague and Moscow, and in smaller trickles to Budapest, Hungary, the setting for Arthur Phillips' ironically named first novel, Prague.

America, as conjured up in Mark Costello's novel about a Secret Service team protecting the vice president during the first stages of presidential primary season, is a rich and exceedingly anxious nation. Costello portrays the electoral process as a sequence of photo ops, stage managed to achieve two objectives: make the candidate seem like a man of the people and keep the people (including potential assassins) well away from the candidate.

Costello distributes his plot among the revolving cast of characters who make up the “Dome.” In Secret Service lingo, the “Dome” is a contingent of agents assigned to protect a politician. The team's leader, Gretchen Williams, is a single black mother with a healthy dread of riot and an instinctive reluctance to lead this particular team. Under her is a group that includes remnants of the old Reagan guard, still licking their wounds about Hinckley; a sexpot exiled from the president's daughter's detachment for committing some vaguely erotic crime of lse majestŽ; and Vi Asplund, our anchoring point of view. Vi comes from New Hampshire, the state that has elevated the presidential primary into an art form. Her brother, Jens, still lives there, cranking out elegant code for BigIf, producer of a computer war game featuring apocalyptic serial killers and mutants.

While BigIf magnifies the horrors that lurk in the dark side of the America psyche, the Dome is professionally fixated on finding their real embodiments the people who blow up abortion clinics, who send threatening letters, who seem to be stalking the candidates. Gretchen, trying to explain her job to her son, thinks, “Someday she would tell him all about it, how she felt out there, hanging on the VP's flank, deep in what agents called vacant mode, a stone defensive Zen, the mind both clean and empty except for what it sees.” Costello writes with authority, moving with perfect echolocation among the vernaculars of a dozen niche occupations while building the story's momentum to its surprise ending. Readers looking for the next Franzen or DeLillo should check Costello out. He's the real thing. Roger Gathman is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.

America, as conjured up in Mark Costello's novel about a Secret Service team protecting the vice president during the first stages of presidential primary season, is a rich and exceedingly anxious nation. Costello portrays the electoral process as a sequence of photo ops, stage managed to achieve two objectives: make the candidate seem like a […]

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