Books: Roots among the Redskins

Michael Arditti enjoys a satirical return to the heartland of America
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The Independent Culture
Leading the Cheers

by Justin Cartwright

Sceptre, pounds 16.99, 246pp

ENGLAND AND America are divided by far more than a common language for Dan Silas, the central figure of Justin Cartwright's new novel. After a successful career in advertising, the British-born Dan returns to the small mid-Western town of Hollybush, where he spent his formative years, to give the keynote address at his High School reunion. As he confronts his old friends, old home and old self, he finds that all three have at once changed beyond recognition and yet remained strangely the same.

Dan has returned to America many times since leaving but always "to Phoenix, to Los Angeles, to New York, to Dallas and Florida". It is clear that the gulf which divides Hollybush - population 11,000, its main street a "cluster of competitive churches" - from such cities is as wide as the one which stretches across the Atlantic. "We lived in the middle of nature among amiable morons," recalls Dan's sister, "It was the kind of America nobody knows or cares about".

Dan cares, although it is never made clear whether his affection for his former home derives from a genuine respect for its virtues or a sentimental yearning for lost innocence. As in much of his work, Cartwright explores themes of cultural cross-fertilisation, especially the mixed blessings of living in "the American century".

When a Second World War veteran waxes lyrical about his time in the Fens, Dan ruminates on the loss of that gentler England. And yet it has been swept away by the very American brashness and individualism he extols.

Dan notes that "movies have been made and books written about reunions because they are particularly charged". The highest charge in Leading The Cheers is generated by Dan's re-encounter with Gloria, the first love with whom he had furtive sex on Thomas Jefferson's bed during a school trip to Monticello.

According to her, this resulted in the birth of their daughter Belinda, who was later murdered by a serial killer. Comparable tension derives from his meeting with Gary, his former best friend who, after a breakdown at Harvard, believes himself to be the reincarnation of the Indian warrior Pale Eagle. In this guise, he persuades Dan to steal a sacred scroll from the British Museum.

is a richly comic novel, with certain aspects of the Middle American setting - in particular, the all-year round Christmas store in which Gloria works - offering considerable scope for Cartwright's satiric pen. The writing is deeply textured: not for nothing does Dan more than once cite Emerson's phrase about "the connectedness of things".

Cartwright's literary method is to underline this connectedness with imagery, such as the lions in Look At It This Way. Here, his key concerns are individual and social responsibility, and the powers of history and memory.

He links these themes through references to the Native Americans, original inhabitants of the mid-West, who have been thrown off their land but remain a constant verbal presence - giving their names to a car (Pontiac), a state (Indiana) and a sports team (the Redskins).

The novel is marred only be a certain ambivalence in Cartwright's attitude to the pivotal figure of Gary. Native American spirituality imbues his adopted persona with an authority which would be lacking in, say, an Oxford undergraduate who purported to be the reincarnation of Nelson. Cartwright's refusal either to question or to endorse Gary's claim is a source of confusion rather than ambiguity. In the end, the reader, rather like Dan, leaves Hollybush enriched but unenlightened.