Sunday, October 02, 2011

E-Book review: Discontents, by James Wallace Birch

Discontents, by James Wallace Birch, 2011

Discontents is the second independently published book I have read, and I am impressed.

There is a lot to like in this story. Birch demonstrates his own social awareness and a little of his politics. He’s sympathetic to the same ideals that I am, but also skeptical and a little cynical—like me. And he’s realistic.

This is a political thriller from a different perspective. The main character is not a super-spy, a cop, a politician or a reporter. He really is an outsider, an overeducated, underemployed, disaffected young man who sees the hypocrisy that Western capitalistic society depends on.

The story begins in the author’s own voice, where he describes how he receives a letter one day from an former friend in high school—a friend who ended the friendship by stealing the author’s girlfriend. Then the central character, Emory Walden, leaves to backpack in Europe. In the letter to the author, Emory tells the story of what happened to him after he returned to his home town, and how he found some shadowy organization is trying to kill him.

During his travels, Emory began a blog that criticized Western governments and their corporate buddies—typical young radical stuff. The blog became a hit among discontented youth, whence the title.

When Emory returns to Washington, DC, he realizes he has become the figurehead of a nebulous young revolutionary movement called FAY, for Fear the Art of Youth. Its main accomplishment seems to be large public marches and graffiti.

Emory finds a low-level job and crashes with another friend, Pat, and continues blogging. His star-blogger status attracts a certain kind of young woman, including Pat’s girlfriend; when she puts moves on Emory, Pat throws him out. Violently.

At this point, Emory is contacted by Fletcher Spivey—possibly the hokiest name in literature. Spivey is an old man who made a fortune in the kind of target marketing that makes corporations drool and civil libertarians quake in fear. Young Spivey had been a radical, the kind who wanted to wake people up, to make them aware of how they’re being fooled by the marketers. But he suppressed those convictions when he took over the family business. Now, in his old age, his career behind him, he wants to sponsor Emory and spark a revolution. He sets Emory up with an apartment, a fake identity as “Liam Logan,” cash and an untraceable Internet account. Emory just has to keep blogging, exhort young people to rebel, and to sneak out at night to make graffiti.

Of course, Emory does more than this; he also pursues a romance with Carolyn, who knows him as Emory Walden.

Eventually, Emory’s recklessness catches up with him: the police arrest him for his graffiti. His sentence is exile from DC. (That was a bit of a plot stretch, but maybe Birch was being metaphorical.) One young cop who knows that Liam Logan is really Emory Walden beats him up; Spivey’s assistant, the beautiful but maimed Ella Alice, takes him to a private doctor, who discovers that Emory has a brain tumor and probably won’t survive an operation that might extend his life beyond the three months he’d have without it.

At this point, Emory begins to suspect the FAY movement, of which he is the hidden head—none of the marchers in the streets even know what he looks like—has been infiltrated by the government. Lying in his hospital, he wonders if it’s the local police, the FBI, CIA or NSA. When Fletcher Spivey asks Emory if he would donate his organs if he does not survive the brain operation, Emory finally bolts.

The story is refreshing. The perspective of the real outsider—not someone who has found a comfortable place within this society, but a truly disaffected young man with no prospects—is a welcome change from the standard thriller on the bookshelves. I liked the way that Birch criticizes what’s wrong with our commercial, materialistic society, but at the same time the radical counterculture. The “discontents” are not heros. Birch describes how they’ll march, protest, blog and complain about what’s wrong with society, then drive fancy cars to overpriced nightclubs and spend their parents’ money.

Discontents disproves the arguments that snobbish commercial publishers use to scoff at independent literature. The style is professional: simple, lucid prose. There are a few typos, but I’ve yet to find a commercially published title without any.

The action and the dialogue are mostly believable, and there are no plot holes. The conclusion is satisfying on many levels: it’s plausible, logical, and leaves no loose ends. But it’s not too tidy, either, and not cloyingly sweet—like a Hollywood movie can be.

About the only real criticism I have is that Fletcher Spivey’s dialogue is not believable. He’s effusive past credibility. I know that Birch was trying to portray a wealthy, patrician type, but Spivey goes too far.

What I really liked was the realism the author portrays. He is ambivalent: he criticizes our own society and culture, as well as the counter-culture. Even Emory lives quite comfortably off the largess of one of the powerful that he criticizes. The most sympathetic character in the story is Renton, a homeless man who displays the grace of an acetic.

Overall, five stars to this smart, engrossing story for making me think while entertaining me with a satisfying story and believable characters.

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