Monday, August 07, 2006

Neo-Eco Done Right

The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman, Read by Scott Brick, Books on Tape, Inc., 2005

It’s almost impossible for me to want to say anything critical of a book written by an author who has decided to write above the intellects of the average thriller reader. How can one fault a novelist who appeals to the gut with action and plenty of it, as well as taking you on a historical whirlwind of a ride through Russian, Estonian, and Sicilian antiquity, all the while writing in fairly straightforward AP style journalese, avoiding the lapses into purplish prose so common to the genre? If there is a complaint about The Geographer’s Library that can be lodged it’s that the sometimes flat prose, with an adjective for nearly everything (“faded flowers,” “exhausted trees,” and so on), leaves the story at a kind of emotional distance.

Fasman’s book begins with a sort of thumbnail biography of an ambitionless cub reporter Paul Tomm who works for the small town paper, the Lincoln Carrier, and the story features a sort of journalistic cliche, the sad sack slacker who stumbles into a big story. The newspaper he works for is the kind of social rag that reports nothing bad unless it can’t be avoided, the kind of place where a store moving from one location to another is a hot exclusive.

Tasked with writing the autobiography of one of the town’s more curious characters, oddball recluse professor Jaan Puhapaev, our young hero finds that the more he digs for information the stranger Puhapaev’s story becomes. Drawing only $1.00 per year in salary, Puhapaev has been in trouble with the law for twice firing his pistol out his college office window and has added bank vault style security features to his office door. Shortly after the coroner contacts Tomm about some of the stranger things he noticed about Puhapaev’s body, a car runs him over in the street.

Just as this particular plotline gets steaming along, Fasman cuts away from the investigation to take us all the way back to the year 1154 where he gives us with the story of Al-Idrisi, the titular geographer and court philosopher to King Roger of Sicily. What follows is a catalog of items Al-Idrisi used in his profession, how those items became lost through time whether by trade, by theft, or by other happenstance. Attached to these items is much legend, a rumor of magical powers, and a secretive number of collectors who aren’t afraid to gain them through force.

At first, this historical delving’s purpose isn’t entirely clear, seeming to wander well away from the point. Fasman has provided Al-Idrisi with fifteen actual relics, perhaps a trifle too many for the novel’s more headlong at times pacing, and not all of them are of equal value. We discover only one piece that seems to actually hold specific power and the story focuses its attention on it, so the necessity of digressing at such length about a kamal (an Arab navigational device made of a rope and a small piece of wood sheathed in copper) may prove occasionally fascinating though ultimately misplaced.

Stylistically one of the weaknesses with the prose in these historical side stories comes when we learn of various people from various ages who have come into contact with the stolen materials from the Geographer’s Library. Written from what reads as omniscient style, each anecdote sounds like the narrator’s first person voice though we are likely meant to read these as pieces contributed to the whole by Tomm writing as a journalist. And thus we learn of the original Sicilian thief who pinched Al-Idrisi’s stuff, how this thief subsequently came to lose all of the treasures save one; we learn of the Soviet engineer who travels to far off Tajikistan on a secret mission, though with a private reason to search out Al-Idrisi’s relics one by one, the commander of a northern gulag who comes into contact with a piece of the philosopher’s wares, and a Cambridge educated British card sharp who is also in the collecting game.

As you can see, there’s a lot of plot here sometimes getting in the way of the story (as Joe Bob Briggs sometimes opined), yet it rarely if ever flags. Fasman has decided to tread a currently popular though well trod subgenre, that of the the Umberto Eco knockoff, and even though the book is chockablock filled with scholarship and fancy book learning, its erudition isn’t so blatantly worn on its sleeve as in The Rule of the Four. It’s richly researched and filled with historical information and background, but it isn’t as self-consciously flashy (possibly due to the author having a successful previous career rather than being a young turk fresh out of college).

Returning to the Tomm plotline, Fasman slowly uncovers the idea that the items from Al-Idrisi’s library might prove to bestow upon the bearer immortality, Puhapaev's death through misadventure notwithstanding. Through investigating Puhapaev along with another professor’s cop son, the wonderfully profane Joe Jidadi, the beer guzzling desk-riding cop with a temper and a brain, Tomm begins to spy the outline of this legend. He dances around this idea, has other characters suggest it or even outright state it, but never gets around to confirming it himself. This, for me, is the best kind of quasi-supernatural thriller — everything is suggestion, distraction, and projection. Our suspicions are never one hundred percent confirmed and we’re left with almost as many questions as when we began.

Reader Scott Brick has one of those action hero style names that never seem to stick in my mind for very long, and so with each performance of his I pick up, I shudder inwardly expecting a stale delivery grunted out in Cro-Magnon speak reminiscent of Schwarzenegger. Instead, Brick is always good, always pacing himself expertly, always delivering dialogue with pep and with the kind more than slight accenting great readers can deliver. He is here tasked to the ultimate with British, Brooklynese, Estonian, Russian, and small town Midwestern, a range of accents all achieved wonderfully.

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