Set in Mexico, England, and culminating in Seattle during the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests of 1999, Robert Newman's novel 'The Fountain at the Center of the World' has already sold out its first printing in the United Kingdom (it has just been published in the United States).
It's easy to see why: Newman has written a big, generous book, filling canisters with facts and philosophy from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Greg Palast, Susan George, and Bill Hicks, then igniting them with keen observations of everyday life in Mexican villages where international factories suck up all the water till the fountains only ffffrrrrrzzzz, in border jails, and on police-lined streets. Finally, he hurls them at the shock troops of globalization. The troops and everyone else -- Radical Cheerleaders and TV correspondents, National Guardsmen and international activists -- are blanketed in a cloud of truth-and-laughing gas that stings, burns, and, yes, brings tears.
Newman, 39, has recently started a five-week tour of the United States and Canada, which will culminate on April 3 at the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. Slim, with a nervous energy, James Dean haircut, thin-lapel jacket over denim shirt, chalk-stripe pants ending in work boots, Newman almost fits in among the young Brooklynites browsing Sunday brunch possibilities at a Thai restaurant where we're seated.
His book has just received a rave review in The New York Times Book Review ("it reads like what you'd get if Tom Wolfe clambered inside the head of Noam Chomsky"), but at a Thai restaurant, Newman bows his head with disarming modesty, admiring the patina of the 1940s Formica, and begs off the comparison. He doesn't deny Chomsky, whom he cites with the ease of a post doc and the wit of poet, but balks at the comparison to Wolfe. "You don't care about his characters," he says.
Fountain, on the other hand, is populated with people we do care about, animating a Dickensian plot. Chano Salgado blows up a toxic-waste pipeline that's poisoning the farmland in northeastern Mexico. Chased by the new zone commander, he's on the run when his long-lost brother, Evan, who was adopted as a baby by well-to-do Brits after the boys' parents died, comes looking for him, hoping for transplants to cure a rare disease from which he's suffering. Chano's son, 14-year-old Daniel Ortega (named for the famed Sandanista), is also searching for him. He hitches a ride on a fishing boat (named the Jennifer Lopez), determined to find his patrimony. And that's just the first 40 pages. The rest of the book is about loss and hope, and is informed by Tolstoy and "Three Men in a Boat," George Eliot, and the newspaper of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Voces de la Frontera.
Unlike the surefooted standard-bearers of many left-of-center books, Newman's heroes stumble over the complexities of life. Chano, who "had optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will," slips across the border and, posing as his brother, "speaks to power" at an issue-management conference. The assembled captains of commerce only laugh, and he goes down in flames, just as Mr. Brooke did in Middlemarch. (Comments Newman, "As Chomsky would say, they were preaching to the wrong audience.") The setback, however, doesn't stop him from searching for -- and meeting, briefly -- his son in the tear-gassed streets of Seattle, only to be clubbed and hauled off by a Robocop, a globalization update on Hollywood's soft-focus finish.
Newman has an innate sympathy for the human condition that even extends to Evan, the workaholic flack who excels at laying "Astroturf, helping set up fake grassroots organizations, such as the Clean Air Working Group (coal companies against the US Clean Air Act)" and revels in the belief that "it is easier and less costly to change the way people think about reality than to change reality." Evan first developed a disdain for democracy when he starred a first in history, earning his college's highest academic award at Cambridge, where "the purpose of such an education was to prepare the money by teaching it the folly of social change."
Newman -- also educated at Cambridge and, like his character Evan, also adopted, but by a working-class family -- clearly rejects such a worldview. Indeed, he saves his most pointed barbs for leaders. Bill Clinton appears in a cameo at the Four Seasons Hotel telling "the cameras of the world's biggest media corporations: I wanna hear the views of those protesters. Outside … there was a fifty-block No Protest Zone … martial law declared and troops and tanks on the streets." Then there's AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whose "bald tortoise head" pokes out of the "carapace … of his ceremonial trade-union suit" as he reads a statement that sounds like solidarity with the protesters even as it sells them out.
The mainstream press comes off even worse, suffering from a new strain of hemophilia that wiped out much of Europe's royalty. "The mental hemophiliac can never synthesize Fact A with Fact B," Newman writes. "It is the sine qua non qualification for the political news class."
Newman goes on "reading holidays" and remembers what he reads with an uncanny clarity, weaving the disparate facts together. (He's planning on reading a lot during his tour of the United States. Because of carbon emissions and their link to tax-free jet fuel and climate change, he only takes flights when he has to cross the Atlantic; he'll thus be riding on trains, sometimes 36 hours at a stretch.)
Newman also is an avid researcher: He hired a tutor for a year and a half to learn Spanish so that he could talk directly with people on his trips to Mexico and Central America; he went out on a Welsh trawler; he roamed the streets and the empty corridors of the convention hall at the WTO protests in Seattle, reporting for the BBC. "They gave me a ticket," he says. "They didn't think anything was going to happen. "
In the U.K. in early 1990s, Newman was hailed as the standup-up comic's equivalent to Mick Jagger. Then he disappeared from public view to write novels. It took him a long time to find a publisher for Fountain, but even the rejections -- five-page, single-spaced screeds about the book's politics -- eventually supported Newman's democratic, leaderless worldview. As his U.S. publisher, Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press, puts it, "If the big corporate publishers didn't act like big corporate publishers, we'd never have gotten Rob's book."
Just for the record, Newman is implacably opposed to capitalism and would like to see it replaced with participatory democracy, "its old arch-rival," which proponents of globalization try to co-opt and declare their own. To underscore globalism's anti-democratic nature, he cites the director of the Washington Center of Strategic and International Studies: "In the final analysis," the director said, "what really matters is how effectively the surrender of governments to the global market is carried out."
Nonetheless, he's hopeful, saying, "In the past 10 years there's been broad, direct-action movements including nonaffiliated people around the world, from Mexico to Bangalore, breaking from the old organized left and focusing on getting things done -- and doing them by themselves."
The U'wa Indians of Colombia, for instance, got multinational corporations to stop clear-cutting their ancestral lands in the Amazon when they threatened mass suicide. On a larger scale, Newman looks to coalitions like the World Social Forum that are searching for new structures of national and international democracy.
Although Newman wants to focus on writing now ("stand-up comedy is a young man's game") and working on the side with groups like Reclaim the Streets, Indymedia, and People's Global Action, he still goes on tour, most recently in Europe in a one-man show called "From Caliban to the Taliban: Five Hundred Years of Humanitarian Intervention."
At the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, Newman reads sections from his book and mixes them with segments from his show, allowing how some Americans might not share his views. He conjures up one who, in a nasal twang, rages about the Vietnamese who have moved into the neighborhood. "We just don't think it's right that they come here and expect to live," the irate citizen complains. "We don't go over to Vietnam and take their jobs and land from them!"
Newman stops, face screwed up, eyes wide in disbelief; his shoulders hollowing in as his arms out stretch in wonder and dismay. "WHAT CAN YOU SAY???" he asks, and then, in rapid-fire sequence, details the political and economic machinations of U.S. foreign policy that so benefited the Vietnamese that doctors became refugees forced to work as day laborers and live next to uneducated rednecks.
Mark Twain once said, "The human race has only one effective weapon, and that is laughter." Now, thanks to Robert Newman, we are well armed.
Suzanne Charlé is a New York-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, and other publications. She is also co-editor of a book about Indonesia under Suharto, which will be published later this year.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc.