"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.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published March 8, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

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.

Our next pick: A misanthropic, chain-smoking, viper-tongued, conniving narrator -- you're gonna love him!

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Fiction What To Read