NUDE WALKER by Bathsheba Monk
“It would take us a long time to see that this war was not being fought with bullets, it was fought with money. And when youâ€™re up against the almighty dollar, there isnâ€™t much you can do about it. ”
Review by Poornima Apte Â (MAR 18, 2011)
The Nude Walker in Bathsheba Monkâ€™s entertaining read is Barbara Warren, a schizophrenic who tends to walk around downtown Warrenside in the buff when sheâ€™s off her meds. The Warrens were once the industrial scions in Warrenside, a fictional town in Pennsylvania. As the town, which used to be the center of the booming steel industry, gradually went into decline, so too rusted the fortunes of the Warrens. These days, Barbara isolates herself in the past, clinging on to memories of the glory days and worrying (because nobody else will, she says) that by 2012, European Americans would be the minority in town.
Thatâ€™s because the town is rapidly being taken over by a whole range of ethnic minorities; the new â€śWarrensâ€ť in town are Lebanese Americans, the Asads. The patriarch of the family, Edward Asad, is a scholar of Arabic literature but has made his money by buying up dead real estate around town and converting them into profitable ventures, including a strip bar called Lucky Lady.
Even if the Asads belong to the Maronite Church, they are viewed with suspicion by the town residents. To help prove the Asadsâ€™ fealty to their adopted country, Edwardâ€™s son Max, joins the army. As the novel opens, Max is stationed with the 501st battalion in Afghanistan and he serves there as liaison between the U.S. forces and the local Afghanis. It is in Afghanistan that Max meets Kat Bineki-Warren, who is coincidentally, Barbara Warrenâ€™s daughter.
Somewhat predictably, Max and Kat fall madly in love despite knowing the negative reactions their relationship will garner in their individual families. In Max, Kat sees â€śa man strong enough to see poetry in life and who knew how to make me hear my own.â€ť
Back home in Warrenside, Edward has already arranged Maxâ€™s marriage to the beautiful daughter of a fellow Lebanese expat. Edward does not take news of Maxâ€™s new relationship lightly and insists that his sonâ€™s love for Kat is nothing more than a childish infatuation.
Kat, too, has baggage of her own she has shed to be with Max. A fellow serviceman, also from Warrenside named Duck, is Katâ€™s childhood friend and it was pretty much a given that the two would marry soon. Needless to say, Maxâ€™s entry on the scene does a lot to stoke Duckâ€™s anger and envy at this â€śforeignâ€ť intruder.
As the two families battle it out, their crisis rises in the same pitch and pace as a flood that threatens to cause substantial damage in town. The local Catawissa river has breached its shores and the 501st battalion, having just reached home after being granted a brief vacation, is pressed into emergency duty.
The clash between Max and his father, Edward, reminded me of a typical Bollywood movie where too, forbidden love often forms the backbone of the narrative. While Nude Walker stays shy of much of Bollywoodâ€™s melodrama, there are portions in the book where outcomes do seem a touch predictable, if not necessarily melodramatic.
A few other charactersâ€”including a Lenape Indianâ€”populate the novel and Monk does a good job of having everyoneâ€™s lives intersect in interesting and meaningful ways.
Even if Nude Walker has a strong love story, it tells a more powerful taleâ€”that of the changing face of America. In a town taken hostage by economic concerns, the locals donâ€™t take to the new immigrants easily. Barbara Warren, for one, totes around a book written by her grandfather, which describes the good old days when the steel flowed hot and constantly. â€śThe book was about much more than building a house,â€ť Barbara remembers, â€śit was about a way of life that he cherished, that of a steel industrialist, with all its privileges and sweet responsibilities and powerâ€”of course power was a big part of itâ€”that was rusting over.â€ť
Nude Walker is a sound addition to recent literature about the slow decline of American manufacturing and the subsequent transformation of the socio-economic landscape. â€śIf Warrenside was so great, why would its scions voluntarily join the army?,â€ť Monk writes. â€śItâ€™s the myth that keeps you going, that you have somewhere to go back to, a cool town whose residents can hardly wait for your return. In truth you have lost your place in a cruel game of musical chairs.â€ť
In that sense, this book shares a lot with one of my favorite recent novels, American Rust, which is also set in Americaâ€™s slowly rusting steel belt. The scarcity of jobs, worries about the future, and a sense of hopelessness among Warrensideâ€™s residents mean that toxins like bigotry and hate can find safe harbor here. It doesnâ€™t take much to kindle a roaring fire with these poisons. And the scars that follow are a permanent feature of the townâ€™s collective psyche. As the Lenape Indians will tell you, history sadly does repeat itself.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 8 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 1, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Bathsheba Monk|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More on the changing American economy:|