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By Michael FitzGerald
Shoemaker Hoard / ISBN: 978-1-59376-131-8
Shall we just be honest for a moment, fellow lovers of the underground arts? That the biggest, snottiest pleasure of all that we experience as such is when we discover a project that's truly magnificent, but that almost none of our fellow snotty underground-arts lovers know of yet themselves. And that's because we suddenly get to be the smug hero for a few weeks, turning all these other people on to this absolutely amazing project that none of them have heard of yet; and you don't feel guilty about it either, because you know just how special a thing it is, and why all your snotty underground-arts friends are going to be grateful to hear about the project, so that they can run off and be smug heroes themselves for a few weeks as well. And thus sometimes do long-running artistic careers get started, or sometimes an artist move up a notch in recognition and pay; this is how the underground arts works, after all, is by everyone involved whispering or sometimes screaming to each other regarding the projects and artists they think worth checking out. It's what keeps corporate influence in the underground arts as weak as it is; it's what allows for an unknown artist from a basement company with no advertising budget at all to suddenly have a hit book or film or CD on their hands.
And ladies and gentlemen, last week I found my first such project so far of 2007; it's a novel entitled Radiant Days by first-time author and Idahoian (Idahoite?) Michael FitzGerald. It is...hmm, where do I even start? It is a subversively funny, infinitely sad look at one of the biggest world messes of recent years, the Balkan civil war of the 1990s, from the standpoint of someone who didn't even know who was fighting whom when first arriving. It's an utter and violent condemnation of Americans, an official "I give up" from one weary citizen of this late, eroding empire, who has absolutely had his fill of the oblivious hipsters and clueless yellow-ribbon hangers of his crumbling homeland. It's an extremely dark and politically-incorrect erotic tale, with tremendously bad things happening to sorta bad people from San Francisco to Budapest to war-torn Bosnia itself. It's Graham Greene for the MySpace generation. It's a requiem for a dying American superpower. It's brilliant. And you should go out right now, right this second, and get a copy of your own. Seriously, I'll wait.
Okay, back with a copy? Good! Let's turn to the beginning, then, and say hello to the book's anti-villain and narrator, clueless American hipster Anthony Sinclair; a product of his place and time (1990s San Francisco), he is a staff member of high-tech publication CNET, making obscene amounts of money to cover the utterly ridiculous house of cards known as the Dot Com industry, drinking trendily-flavored martinis in the SoMa neighborhood every night and sorta sighing ironically about how clueless the Dot Com millionaires all are, for creating an industry that can afford to pay him such an obscene amount of money in the first place. He is ripped from the demographic of the CCLaP website, to be frank; a lover of small-press literature, edgy with his sexuality, not intimidated by spur-of-the-moment global travel, and "naively jaded" in that way only Americans can seemingly achieve, and that Generation X has seemingly perfected.
In fact, Anthony is about to go on a spur-of-the-moment global trip himself; a Hungarian bartender in the Mission named Gisele is flying back to Budapest in two days, ostensibly to track down her child who her family forced her to give up for adoption years ago, and has convinced Anthony to impulsively quit his job and go with her. How? Well, she's a hottie for one, that exotic mix of Western and Eastern features you find in that part of the world, who understands intimately just how attractive she is and how to manipulate that in order to get clueless Western boys to do what she wants; and for another there's...well. That's pretty much it, actually, which gets to one of the biggest character flaws in Anthony; that despite understanding how guilty he is of this in the past, he still allows good-looking flirtatious women to have a psychological hold over him, and to let them convince him to do ridiculous things all in the theoretical name of perhaps a little p--sy afterwards.
In fact, there's a whole lot about Anthony to dislike in Radiant Days, which is why I call him an anti-villain instead of an anti-hero; because instead of him being a traditional bad guy who you root for anyway, here he starts out as a charming if not clueless American who you come to despise more and more. And this is why I compare FitzGerald to Graham Greene as well, the master of self-loathing globetrotting jaded hipsters, is because many of his characters end up that way over the course of his stories too, under similar circumstances (see my review, for example, of Greene's 1949 movie The Third Man, about a similar naive American in a similar war-torn Eastern European environment); and in fact Radiant Days has had me understanding Greene in a completely new way this week, a way I never understood him before, which makes me suddenly realize why most other novels about globetrotting jaded hipsters don't hold a candle to either Greene or FitzGerald. Follow me on this...
You see, what I realized this week is that neither Greene nor FitzGerald are writing about just any ol' jaded globetrotting hipsters in their work, but rather citizens of massive empires right at the end of that empire's dominating days. And as long as I've been a fan of Greene (and I've been a fan for awhile now), it had never even occurred to me to think of that -- that what separates Greene's jaded hipsters from all the other whiny jaded hipsters in literature that I can't usually stand, is that his are British citizens at the end of the British Empire's glory days, who are in a position to both comment on the inglorious downfall of their once all-powerful nation happening all around them, as well as display the very traits that made the rest of the world hate them by then, and what made them lose world dominance in the first place. It's this kicker that elevates FitzGerald's novel way beyond all the other stories out there about ex-pats traipsing across Eastern Europe and making a mess wherever they go; because FitzGerald has incredibly astute things to say about Americans in a post-9/11 world (despite the book being set in the 1990s), of how in Anthony we can see not only all the reasons Bush was elected twice but also why the rest of the planet hates us for it, as well as why we are on the quick decline as we speak from ever being a world superpower again. And not only that, but why we deserve it, and why it'd be impossible to stop at this point even if every American citizen suddenly came to their senses tomorrow.
And that reason, FitzGerald heavily intimates in Radiant Days, is that people like Anthony are simply a natural byproduct of a late empire starting to decline; that all those decades of world dominance have created a society where not a single living person there knows any other way of life, and by that very nature have grown cowardly, lazy and decadent despite individually all being nice-enough people. Ultimately, after all, Anthony ain't that bad a guy, or at least in terms of how we Americans judge our fellow Americans; he's young, he's inexperienced, he's the product of an educational system that doesn't emphasize world history or geography in any way at all, and he's been spoon-fed his entire life on what an amazing thing free-election democracies are when backed by a free-market capitalist economy, and how it's the US's ethical/spiritual duty to install such a system in as many locations around the world as possible. In Anthony's world, just like many Americans, "war" is something that happens in far-off lands that might as well be fictional universes, seen only through the grainy green video of a CNN infrared camera, the entire planet an endless Year In Provence where authenticity and foreign respect can be purchased at any time with a platinum credit card, paid for by the endless hubris of an out-of-control consumerist society unhealthily obsessed with celebrity, fame, handguns, and incarcerating their own children. Ugh, Americans!
But of course, it ain't just Americans who get the shaft in Radiant Days; as the story organically progresses from Budapest through southern Hungary and then to the Croatian border, FitzGerald has both witty and damning observations to make about nihilistic British war reporters (and is there any other kind?), Slav black-marketeers, the infinitely annoying "hackeysack-playing hippie" brand of Australian backpackers, overly earnest Dutch NGO volunteers, and pretty much anyone else who happened to be in the Balkans in the '90s. And in this case, it is honestly one of the few cases where I can see an actual benefit to all the money and trouble of getting an MFA degree (which FitzGerald did when younger, at the University of Montana); because as FitzGerald has admitted in interviews, much of the incidental details of Radiant Days came from a series of rough notes he kept while traveling through the Balkans years ago himself, and I have to admit that it takes a special kind of educated, disciplined writer to be able to take such raw notes and turn them into the elegant and vibrantly vivid mental landscapes he paints here.
Because for those who don't know, see, by living here in Chicago myself, I've had regular exposure over the last decade to stories from the Balkan civil war, from not only Serbs and Croatians who fled here during the war itself (tens of thousands of them in Chicago, in fact), but also the ton of NGO employees and Peace Corps volunteers and other civilians headquartered here, the largest city in the Midwest and third largest in the entire nation. I've heard lots of stories by now about what happened over there in the '90s; and far from all of them being exciting because of the nature of the stories themselves, I've learned that depending on the storyteller, even tales of a bloody civil war can sometimes be incomprehensible or sometimes even boring. But like I said, FitzGerald has taken his own notes about his time there and has crafted a sparkling portrait of a specific time and place; a portrait that will grab you and pull you in with its details, in fact, if you allow yourself the lack of distractions for it to do so. From his minimalist descriptions to his spot-on dialogue, almost all of this novel will ring true to anyone who's done any amount of international travel backpack-style, and I can honestly say that not a word of it contradicted any of the real stories I've heard now here in Chicago over the years over what exactly happened in the former Yugoslavia in the first place.
Oh, and if this weren't enough, by the way, FitzGerald has also woven in an extremely dark erotic subplot throughout the length of the novel as well: one that takes us from the limits of abusive group behavior in the Bay area to voyeuristic heroin-fueled trysts in Europe, to baby-stealing war-profiteering sexual predators who nail their clothes to hotel walls during naked drug binges in order to have at least pretend-friends they can trust. The sexuality in Radiant Days is strong, and it's intense, something much more along the lines of Poppy Z. Brite instead of Anne Rice, and will take some getting used to if you're not acclimated yet to that kind of explicitness (and is integral enough to the plot that you can't just skip over it either). But it's also legitimately arousing as well as shockingly original, and there's a good reason it was nominated for a literary award last year by famed postmodern erotic website Nerve.com.
And the kicker to it all? To the entire damn thing? The thing that adds that final oomph between just a very good debut novel and me twirling my finger in the air and yelling "GEEEENNIUS!" in a dramatic voice? Turns out that FitzGerald is about as far away a person in real life as one can get from Anthony -- he's a quiet family man and
teacher software engineer, a happily married father of two out in the middle of Idaho. And I don't know why, I really don't, but it just seems to me that Radiant Days is just all the more brilliant for this being true; that there is barely anything autobiographical about it, according to the stories FitzGerald has related in past interviews, that almost all of it is merely reflections of the various people he's met in his travels over the years. It's the mark of a truly mature writer, I think, a truly special one, when they can paint this perfect a portrait of a life they didn't live themselves; when they can see both the big picture and the little one in such a crystal-clear way, and write a story that you can either interpret in the macro (how screwed-up America is right now) or micro (how screwed-up this clueless little dot-com frat-boy a--hole is). Given that this is his first novel, I am tremendously excited to see what future books FitzGerald has in store for us, and wonder if we are seeing right now the official start of what will eventually be an expansive and award-winning career.
I can honestly say, I really can*, that there isn't a single element of Radiant Days that I would change; that the characters are perfect, the style as well, the storyline and setting, the message being told, the editing and pacing, even the plucky underdog nature of it being published by an obscure small press. And that's why Radiant Days today officially becomes the very first project so far in the history of CCLaP to get a perfect 10 from me, and why I feel that the book sincerely earned it. It is hereby my smug pleasure to inform you of how necessary it is that you go out and get a copy of Radiant Days yourself; that it is a perfect example of why one should love the underground arts in the first place, in that every so often we get a chance to stumble across magnificent little gems like this.
Out of 10:
*And since my score is indeed so high today, I'd like to just state for the record that I received no compensation from anyone for writing today's review; that I never accept compensation of any kind, in fact, in exchange for favorable coverage here. Nor am I personal friends with FitzGerald, although admittedly we've corresponded a few times, mostly so he could find out how his publishers could best send me a copy of the book.