Penguin, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Apartment, By Greg Baxter

 

In 2010, Texan-born Greg Baxter published his brutally honest memoir, A Preparation for Death. It recounted his life in Dublin as a failed novelist, teaching creative writing and drowning his sorrows in booze and women. The reviews were mixed: the occasional quality of his writing was overwhelmed by the tediousness of the explicit sex and his tendency to descend into narcissistic self-pity.

Two years on, he has finally realised his novelistic ambitions. The plot is simple: in an unspecified European city in the middle of winter, an unnamed 41-year-old American man walks the snowy streets in the company of a woman called Saskia, looking for an apartment to rent. Having spent all his life in the desert (in his home city in the US and in Iraq), the man has traded the baking heat and his "gigantic black pickup" for a pair of good walking boots and a thick winter coat.

Haunted by his past, he is "trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints", keen to vacate the room he rents because of the constant "presumption of departure", but equally drawn to the "shallow, purgatorial waters of hotel life". The problem of guilt hangs heavily over the text. "Regret" for this man is "contemporaneous with experience", so starting afresh is difficult. He longs for his still-forming friendship with Saskia to stay frozen in time so they can "remain strangers".

Where in his memoir, meditation turned to navel-gazing, here Baxter handles this emphasis on interiority with commanding effect. His protagonist is not merely struggling beneath the weight of the violence in his own life story; he grapples with the larger sense of history that infuses the text with an effect that recalls WG Sebald. While very little actually happens – Baxter's characters walk, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and stamp their feet against the cold – there's a maturity to The Apartment not often found in debut novels. Listening to a European blues band in a bar one night, with their fake accents and "dry" knowledge, the American describes their music as suffering from "an emptiness where inheritance ought to be". But emptiness is Baxter's greatest strength, an ever-more impressive trait given his hyperbolic literary history.

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