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'The New City' by Stephen Amidon

Planned utopian city self-destructs in riveting novel

Sunday, March 12, 2000

By Sherri Hallgren


The New City

By Stephen Amidon



Welcome to Newton, Md., the “New City” of Stephen Amidon’s powerhouse of a new novel. Here in the planned community of Newton, clusters of housing for all income levels, village markets for shopping and discreetly steepled interfaith centers all nestle amid acres of open parkland, with no structure rising higher than the trees.

As a further social improvement, a racial mix of residents, mostly drawn from nearby Washington, D.C., is both encouraged and desired.

Newton is the brainchild of architectural utopian Barnaby Vine, founder of Newton’s parent company EarthWorks, who believed the city’s design would remedy the resentment and alienation fomenting the nation’s social chaos.

“Put people in cages, and they’ll act like animals,” he said. “Put them in communities, and they’ll act like human beings.”

The book opens in 1973, when the Watergate hearings were starting, the Vietnam War was coming to a close and there was hope of healing the nation’s wounds.

This potential racial harmony is manifest in the two men who take Vine’s dream and build it: Austin Swope, the white attorney who puts the deals together, and Earl Wooten, the black foreman who oversees all construction. Arm in arm, they have turned farmland into their city.

Each has a teen-age son who are also friends. Joel Wooten is handsome and smart, with an innocent but undeniable sexual charisma. Teddy Swope has acne, a double scholarship to Harvard and is “practiced in all the lesser hallucenogenic arts.”

While Joel has had casual girlfriends, he has remained ever tight with strange Teddy, who says that like John Lennon, he will forgo Cynthias to wait for his Yoko. (For now, we suspect, his Yoko is Joel.)

In these elements is the possibility to enact the social and cultural renovation envisioned by Newton’s founder, but things go wrong. Five years into the town’s development, a race riot has reduced the Teen Center to rubble, the hatchery-raised fish in the ecologically perfected lake are dying, and the gas lights lining the curbs are starting to explode.

And that’s just the infrastructure. In this new hybrid flower of community lurk the same old worms -- ambition, racism, jealousy and paranoia.

Austin Swope hears a rumor that Earl Wooten is being considered for the city manager’s job, a job Swope has assumed was his, and Joel has fallen in love for real, with Susan Truax, a white girl from the tract housing section.

Joel’s relationship with Susan introduces the third family in Amidon’s study. Susan’s father, John Truax, was a major in Vietnam until he contracted a mysterious necrotic infection in his hand. Discharged before finishing his tour, he’s hired by EarthWorks as a salesman. Susan’s mother Irma is a German woman who, when drinking (which is always), spews racist invective.

The close focus on these emblematic families gives the novel the feel of a vast social panorama. Newton is brilliantly evoked, the setting itself important enough to function almost as another character. But it is the inner landscape and psychological architecture of his characters that draw the most from Amidon.

Except for the caricatured neo-Nazi Irma and possibly Austin Swope, who is “careful not to sully his custom-made wing tips,” Amidon creates deep sympathy for these characters.

“The New City” is as intricate and vast and organized as Newton itself, perfectly plotted. At first, it ambles, each character taking his turn to advance the plot. But once events are set in motion, they roll with the momentum and destructive force of a freight train. Set within this utopian vision of race as well as community, the novel’s bleak betrayals are all the more unsettling.

In creating Newton, Barnaby Vine asserted his optimism that the force of community could counteract the estrangement of race and class; Amidon suggests here that for all the influence of social engineering, it is still the force of the personal -- especially, the American belief in one’s own Manifest Destiny -- that effects change.

At the end, with the inevitability of classic tragedy, everything and everyone go too far too fast. Plot events come close to devolving into melodrama, but the speed is so furious (Newton itself is ready to burst into flame) that the heightened pitch feels appropriate.

In its energetic exploration of prejudice and in its sheer dramatic power, “The New City” is a potent, resonant novel.

Sherri Halgren directed the graduate program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California and now lives in the Pittsburgh area.

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