Sunday, September 14, 2008

John le Carre's son's prodigious debut

Nick Harkaway is the son of espionage writer John le Carre, and this association undoubtedly had some role to play in the huge advance that The Gone-Away World collected internationally. Having said that, it is important to note the worthy gifts of this debutant.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world, a milieu that's attained renewed interest since Cormac McCarthy took home the 2006 Pulitzer for The Road. Harkaway's book is science fiction with a literary bent, a break away from his father's decidedly mass market "pulp" predilections.

We begin the novel some years into a worldwide conflict -- the Go Away War -- that was so brutal it has rendered vast tracts of the earth inhospitable. A massive pipeline, indestructible as the Titanic was unsinkable, has caught fire and threatens the lives of those it guards within its confines.

This is because the pipeline must dispense a chemical -- mysteriously labeled "FOX" -- that nullifies the effect of the deleterious fumes that the Go Away War pumped into the atmosphere. The unnamed narrator, along with his best friends Gonzo Lubitsch and Jim Hepsobah -- all members of an emergency trucking service -- have been deployed to put out the fire and restore the pipeline.

From here, Harkaway takes the reader into the past, detailing the narrator's childhood and the origins of the Go Away War, his fiction borrowing heavily from the absurdity of the present-day world. The narrator is suitably versatile, from training in kung fu as a youngster to later joining a top secret military project aimed at developing the ultimate weapon.

The book jumps back and forth in time, and the only tribute Harkaway pays to his father's craft is the sudden twists the plot takes to nudge the story forward. Harkaway is a humorist, so don't expect a grim tale of crime and redemption. Rather, The Gone-Away World is a fast-paced and intelligent work from a writer one needs to watch out for.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times.

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