Ann Petry and Robert Newman — Two Partisan Novels

The Street — by Ann Petry

Ann Petry’s 1946 novel, The Street, is a protest novel—muckraking at its best, with race and racial equity at its heart….

The Fountain at the Centre of the World — Robert Newman

This, the third novel by Robert Newman, comedian and activist, is that rarest of things: an explicitly political, indeed openly partisan novel that doesn’t make you cringe.

An adventure and misadventure story set against the background of capitalist globalisation and the struggle against it, The Fountain at the Centre of the World is, above all else, a book, the humanity of whose central characters, rapidly engage the reader. If one of the signs of a good book is that, soon after meeting the characters, you care deeply about what happens to them, then this is a very good book indeed. The challenges faced by Daniel in the search for his father, challenges which he faces on two continents and in three alien cultures, are soon those of the reader. The final chapters assault senses and emotions equally as a reunion, amidst the chaos of the Seattle protests of 1999, appears possible at last.

Newman has refused to reduce his protagonists to cartoon heroes and villains whilst making no pretence at objectivity or detachment. We are not subjected to any attempt to devalue the actions of the characters through exposing their deep psychological flaws, a popular device used by cynical hacks to explain the motivations of revolutionaries. Values are at work here and they are the values of people who believe not just that another world is possible, but that another way achieving it, beyond NGOs, Union bureaucracies and progressive politicians, is possible too. A few negatives though. Sometimes the book appears to have reached the shelves in note form, like the author was pushed for time or was writing a screenplay. And in a book that is so obviously meticulously researched and, therefor convincing, it’s a pity the Mexican Frente Autentico Trabajo is described as “anarcho-syndicalist”. It isn’t. Other than these criticisms (the latter one that only an anarcho-trainspotter could make!), this is a remarkable book….

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