BOOKS FICTION Secrets and the Newt effect

THE PRIMITIVE by Stephen Amidon, Gollancz £15.99

THIS seems to be one for the boys. It starts with the hero racing his vintage Ford Mustang down a mountain. Then he runs a mysterious woman off the road, injures and rescues her, nurtures and protects her - and is seduced and betrayed. It's very Fatal Attraction.

But while that story set its male anxieties in booming mid-'80s Manhattan, Michael Douglas led astray by shoulder pads and a loft apartment, this one is more recessional and more subtle. The hero, David Webster, is working un-happily as a copywriter for a North Carolina property developer after losing his real career in a corporate downsizing. His best friend Rowdy is a doctor who sweats all night for a private hospital, then spends his days avoiding his waspish wife's divorce papers. Webster's town - vividly conjured - is a shell hollowed out by Wall Street, with dereliction downtown and a whole quarter fenced off and abandoned to weeds and insects, renamed Nowheresville.

Amidon cleverly uses the atomisation of Newt Gingrich's America to drive the plot: the injured woman, Sara, flees Rowdy's hospital because she can't pay; Webster puts her up in an empty repossessed house. She seems to have no money, no friends, and - as is traditional in the thriller genre - no identity. "There was clearly some purpose behind her evasiveness, some drama in which he didn't need anything more than a walk-on part," writes Amidon, as if he's already trying to dumb things down for future Holly-wood adaptation. But mostly he keeps the obvious in check; with Sara tied to her hiding place by a broken wrist, the plot backtracks to Webster's slow fade from his happily married dream-home twenties to the negative equity and marital boredom of his early thirties.

This shift is made political: he used to run a charitable foundation, now he sells life behind fences and burglar alarms; his wife works all hours to save a failing public radio station. Webster's falling for Sara only confirms his withdrawal from the community: "Nothing mattered but being with her now." Then Amidon throws in his twist: Sara's past, obdurately hidden from Webster, contains the roots of his decline and that of his town. Unfortunately for the book's pacing, these revelations are too slow in coming: Amidon and Webster are both so enraptured by Sara's inscrutability that the second half of the book is dominated by long, claustrophobic love scenes.

This is a shame, because the conspiracy held behind Sara's liquid eyes is a good one, leading Webster - when he can drag himself awake - up to a dead tobacco magnate's art-stuffed mountain cabin. But Amidon keeps hiding Sara's secrets by contrived interruptions and coincidences. Since he's also determined to avoid a clichd firefight of a climax, the momentum slips. And when Sara tells all, her confessions seem undramatic, Lovejoy- sized.

This doesn't ruin the book, however: despite terse dialogue and a pair of pale villains on Sara's trail, The Primitive works more as a sad eye cast over modern America than as a thrusting thriller. Its best scene comes long before the end, when Webster and Sara go for a picnic among the empty lots and dead dogs of Nowheresville. Amidon sees his country's future here, the postwar suburban dream burnt out and abandoned, and lingers over the wreckage. But you can bet the Hollywood adaptation will cut straight back to the chase.

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