The Moment, By Douglas Kennedy
An ill-advised romance and an escape to the city
Sunday 08 May 2011
Douglas Kennedy's tenth novel, The Moment, finds the bestselling author flexing his muscles and playing to all his strengths.
Kennedy, like William Boyd and Paul Watkins, has always managed to walk that precarious tightrope of credibility between the twin towers of popular and literary fiction. And like his peers, he has his own distinct leitmotif. While Boyd is intrigued by the vagaries of identity and Watkins with adventure, Kennedy is focused on escapology. His narrators are frequently in flight; from domestic harnesses, marital discord, political ruts and fiscal dilemmas.
"I've always wanted to escape," says The Moment's protagonist, Thomas Nesbitt. "It's an urge I've had from the age of eight onwards, when I first discovered the pleasures of evasion." At the opening, Thomas is hammered by a particularly grim instant, when he is served his divorce papers at his Maine hideaway. This is quickly followed by a blast from his past, when a parcel arrives from his German ex-love, Petra Dussman. We're then taken back a quarter of a century to Thomas's stay in the Cold War frost of 1980s Berlin, where he hopes to write an opus on the city's split predicaments. The lives of others swiftly intrude.
To get a feel for Berlin's underbelly, Thomas takes lodgings with Alistair Fitzsimons-Ross, an Irish aristocratic artist in the Francis Bacon mould. A job at the western propagandist station Radio Liberty provides an income and an obsessive love affair: Petra is a brooding translator with dangerous links to the GDR. The passage of time and the wrench of passion cut through this entertaining novel like the wall separating the city.
If the amorous interludes prove a touch queasy, there's plenty of good writing to make up for it. Kennedy is particularly adept at capturing the ugliness of modern life. Thomas witnesses his mother "commit suicide on the installment plan, courtesy of cigarettes" and a grunge club amounts to "a copulative phantasmagoria". Seamy characters prove equally well judged. Alistair is a fantastic creation: a junkie who is impeccably house proud. "You can destroy your family fortune," says Alistair. "You can kill all the things you love, but never, never, appear in public with an unpressed pair of trousers and scuffed shoes." His self-created ennui is fully rounded in a way that Thomas's love affair with Petra isn't.
Kennedy has been hoist with his own petard. His breakthrough novel, 2001's The Pursuit of Happiness, saw him conjure a tragic love story out of the darkest recesses of the McCarthy witch-hunts, but its success saw him tagged as a romantic novelist. His books were rejacketed with female-friendly covers, and each new novel has a romance jimmied in. However, Kennedy is a particularly masculine writer. He captures with acuity men's self-destructive nature and the eddies in which husbands, fathers and sons find themselves caught.
When Kennedy escapes from the choke-hold of his own success, he provides more than just a well crafted page-turner. The Woman in the Fifth (soon to hit the cinemas with Kristin Scott Thomas as the titular femme fatale) is a good example. In that book, he reworked his runaway narrative into a Gallic take on a Henry James ghost story. The Moment remains a great read but I can't help thinking there are better things to come from this fine raconteur, if he can only eschew the demands of his publishers. That would be a great escape.
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