Robert Newman’s third novel, The Fountain at the Center of the World, juxtaposes a pair of estranged brothers: Chano, a grassroots industrial saboteur on the lam in Mexico, and Evan, a London-based spin doctor for the corporate Right. These two stars plot the transnational story’s course, guiding it to and fro across the Atlantic, out of the ailing heart of Mexico and into the riotous streets of Seattle for the 1999 WTO fiasco. Newman, a jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes sold-out comedy gigs in Wembley Arena as well as some considerable roll-up-your-sleeves activism, sweeps a novelistic searchlight across the dark side of post-NAFTA globalization. The result is a relentless and noble book—because of its finger-pointing rather than in spite of it—the charged kind of story Costa-Gavras might film.
Newman’s prose is sharp and journalistic, propelling us forward at a breakneck narrative clip.The rebel Chano is on the run, troubled by the difficulty of a reunion with his long-lost son, Daniel, whose life is also in peril as he attempts to locate his outcast father. Evan’s situation is dire, too. As a child, he contracted the fatally incurable Chagas Disease; this sends him now, in his early thirties, in search of his brother Chano for the temporary fix provided by a marrow transfusion.
These thriller-like techniques make for some serious page-turning, but they remain yoked to the social, economic, and environmental travesties that—perhaps more greatly—concern the author. Newman is undoubtedly preaching to the choir with this book (will the corporate jet-setters be reading Fountain up in first class?), but even the left-leaning reader might prefer a little more blood in the ballast, more soul-searching than stone-throwing. The story often feels to have been built from an outline, if not an outright manifesto, and, in the end, the author may be indiscriminately applying the maxim in reverse: all politics can be art.
Newman himself has fought battles in activism’s trenches, and he researched his subjects extensively. His work on this book was chronicled by the BBC in a televised series called Scribbling. Newman also learned Spanish, and Spanish words are scattered throughout his polyglot tale, the most significant of them coming in the form of a small pun. Poley Bray, Evan’s consulting firm in London, is a name that suggests palabra, the Spanish word for word. As with much contemporary literature, words and their mutable usages are a preoccupying theme of this novel, the fountain at the center of its world. Whether it’s Chano’s clarification of the term terrorism, Evan’s cleverly naming a loggers’ group the Sustainable Forest Foundation, or Daniel’s finding employment on a fishing boat called the Jennifer Lopez, Newman is constantly demonstrating that things aren’t always what we call them. The book could get more mileage out of this if Newman—whose dramatic scenes are very, very good—slowed down and invested more word-time in his characters before shooting them across the map.
Fountain proves to be an extraordinarily ambitious book in scope and subject, nonetheless, and Newman’s passion is evident on every page. Conviction such as his can carry a reader through the densest agenda. Even when Fountain’s dramatic sets are struck for the mop-up work of exposition, you can hear, beneath the clatter of facts, the slow pings of a heart still dripping in the pan.