NUDE WALKER by Bathsheba Monk

Book Quote:

“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 you’re up against the almighty dollar, there isn’t much you can do about it. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (MAR 18, 2011)

The Nude Walker in Bathsheba Monk’s entertaining read is Barbara Warren, a schizophrenic who tends to walk around downtown Warrenside in the buff when she’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.

That’s because the town is rapidly being taken over by a whole range of ethnic minorities; the new “Warrens” 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 Asads’ fealty to their adopted country, Edward’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 Warren’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 “a man strong enough to see poetry in life and who knew how to make me hear my own.”

Back home in Warrenside, Edward has already arranged Max’s marriage to the beautiful daughter of a fellow Lebanese expat. Edward does not take news of Max’s new relationship lightly and insists that his son’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 Kat’s childhood friend and it was pretty much a given that the two would marry soon. Needless to say, Max’s entry on the scene does a lot to stoke Duck’s anger and envy at this “foreign” 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 Bollywood’s melodrama, there are portions in the book where outcomes do seem a touch predictable, if not necessarily melodramatic.

A few other characters—including a Lenape Indian—populate the novel and Monk does a good job of having everyone’s lives intersect in interesting and meaningful ways.

Even if Nude Walker has a strong love story, it tells a more powerful tale—that of the changing face of America. In a town taken hostage by economic concerns, the locals don’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. “The book was about much more than building a house,” Barbara remembers, “it was about a way of life that he cherished, that of a steel industrialist, with all its privileges and sweet responsibilities and power—of course power was a big part of it—that was rusting over.”

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. “If Warrenside was so great, why would its scions voluntarily join the army?,” Monk writes. “It’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.”

In that sense, this book shares a lot with one of my favorite recent novels, American Rust, which is also set in America’s slowly rusting steel belt. The scarcity of jobs, worries about the future, and a sense of hopelessness among Warrenside’s residents mean that toxins like bigotry and hate can find safe harbor here. It doesn’t take much to kindle a roaring fire with these poisons. And the scars that follow are a permanent feature of the town’s collective psyche. As the Lenape Indians will tell you, history sadly does repeat itself.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 8 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Bathsheba Monk
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More on the changing American economy:


March 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Reading Guide, US Mid-Atlantic