"The City of Your Final Destination" by Peter Cameron

A naive young grad student travels to a crumbling mansion in Uruguay seeking authorization to write the biography of a suicidal novelist.

By Laura Miller
May 24, 2002 2:56AM (UTC)
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Although they're eventful, the novels of Peter Cameron have the feeling of an idyll, the languor of a late afternoon in early summer, when the low thrill of youthful hope seems to go hand in hand with the wit of a more seasoned perspective on life. It's on such afternoons as these, surely, that the best of Shakespeare's comedies take place and that a little girl sitting on a riverbank, bored of watching her sister read, is most likely to spot a rabbit carrying a pocket watch as it vanishes under a hedge.

The rabbit holes in "The City of Your Final Destination" mostly have to do with Jules Gund, a writer who has been dead for several years when the novel begins. The son of wealthy Jews who fled Germany just before World War II, Gund grew up on Ochos Rios, an estate in Uruguay, wrote an acclaimed novel and then, according to one character, "spent twenty miserable years trying to do it again, and failing over and over," until he finally walked into the woods to shoot himself. Gund has left behind, in his family's remote, crumbling manse, a wife, Caroline, a mistress, Arden, and an 8-year-old daughter. A little down the road his elderly brother Adam lives with his much younger Thai lover, Pete.


Caroline, Arden and Adam are the executors of Jules' estate and guardians of his fading reputation, so it's to them that a doctoral student from the University of Kansas appeals, requesting authorization to write a biography. They tell him no, but the student, one Omar Razaghi, has gotten himself into a complicated fix involving a fellowship and, egged on by his bossy girlfriend, shows up at their door to plead his case. It's a scenario that echoes Henry James' "The Aspen Papers," only in this version the impressionable naif is Omar, the literary acolyte, and instead of serving the cold-blooded cult of Art he finds himself waylaid by unruly emotions.

Ochos Rios, where most of the action takes place, feels suspended in amber, partly because the remnants of Gund's eccentrically extended family have gotten their lives stuck, and partly because Cameron's lucid prose holds everything just so. The overmatched Omar -- a passive, deracinated Iranian who grew up in Toronto and seems to be bumped by external forces from one stage of his life to the next like an empty boat on a pond -- tumbles into the midst of the Ochos Rios milieu and inadvertently sets everything in motion again.

What this involves, largely, is conversation, some of the best dialogue to be found in any novel published in the past year or so, whether it's Adam's Wildean remarks ("There is something a little pathetic about winding up old and beautiful and charming, I think; it indicates, to me at least, a waste of resources, or at the very least a serious misappropriation of them") or Caroline's implacable frankness ("I have noticed this: this hesitation to speak about anything outside of one's field. This caution. How boring it makes everything"). Even the less formidable characters emerge effortlessly whole in the course of a few pages; after a single telephone conversation between Omar and Dierdre, his nudging girlfriend, it's possible to chart the entire arc of their relationship.


An amusing quadrille of shifting allegiances, indiscretions and gambits ensues, but as Adam observes, "It has been my experience that sooner or later things always get messy or dangerous." In this case, it's both, with the mess coming in the form of a kiss and the danger in the sting of a sleepy bee. Cameron is a writer of strange and sneaky allure -- he can tell you more by not telling you something that ought to be humanly, or at least artistically, possible. "City of Your Final Destination," like Cameron's previous novel, "Andorra," transpires like a dream, sweet if also sometimes barbed, and ends on an unexpected grace note. It's a generous, sunny book, with just enough shadows to hint at the mysterious territory that lies beneath its surface.

Our next pick: Historically inspired stories of strange births, drugged bridegrooms and the intimate lives of famous thinkers

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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