(Reviewed by Poornima Apte FEB 3, 2009)
Edward Inman, the protagonist of Stephen Amidon's riveting new novel, Security, makes a career out of keeping people secure—he installs and maintains security systems in Stoneleigh, a small college town in western Massachusetts. An insomniac, Ed is married to Meg, a go-getter, who is running for mayor of the town. As portrayed in the book, she seems to suffer Ed for the sake of their two young girls.
Also in the town lives Kathryn, Ed's ex-girlfriend and middle school teacher. She tries to make a home for her teen sons—Conor who is old enough to move out but won't because he can't get his act together, and Andrew, a needy, clingy early teen. Then there's Walt Steckl, an unemployed electrician and recovering alcoholic who has had a couple of run-ins with the law. Walt's daughter, Mary, is a student at Stoneleigh College taking a writing course conducted by a sexy, nontenured professor, Stuart.
Across town, in the very posh areas near the college, live Doyle Cutler and his mousy wife and a few other rich folk for whom luxurious estates in Stoneleigh are just their third, fourth or even fifth homes. Because of his deep pockets, Doyle can exert influence over many people's lives in town—and soon, he does.
One evening, Ed records a mysterious security breach at the Cutler residence but Doyle dismisses it summarily. Ed thinks nothing much of the event until many of the town's residents are sucked into the story that rapidly follows: Mary Steckl accuses Doyle of assault at his residence, Stuart and Conor are also labeled as witnesses to the event. With all the power that money can buy, Doyle has the police suspecting Walt Steckl instead, as the perpetrator of the assault on his own daughter. Security centers on the series of events that unfolds, testing already fragile relationships to the breaking point.
Stephen Amidon has a perfect ear for dialog and the pacing in Security is extremely taut right until the (slightly theatrical) end. Amidon excels at creating characters readers can empathize with. He paints his characters with real strengths and vulnerabilities and the daily challenges that each character must face are ones that most readers can identify with. That having been said, the portraits he paints of the rich folk sometimes seem like caricatures—they lack the nuance the rest have. “He seemed to be the sort of person who was incapable of occupying the moment, always waiting for the next fortunate thing to happen to him,” Amidon writes of Doyle Cutler, “He'd made his money in a steamy, long-fanged sector of the capitalist jungle before taking retirement. Debt consolidation, it was called, at least while there were witnesses around.”
There are also wonderful touches of irony in the book as in the little para that details the murky dramas that unfold in television land, “He took control of the remote and navigated them toward the fact-based sector of the cable galaxy, where robot cars battled to the robot death and the mysteries of the murkiest ocean trenches were revealed; where animals were saved by vets who looked like soap opera stars and dank old houses were made over for astonished and grateful owners.” Interestingly enough, these television adventures pale in comparison to the more gripping reality unfolding in town.
Security is so immensely readable not because of some hugely ambitious story arc but because it captures contemporary, everyday human interactions so very well. The needy dependence of Stuart's girlfriend, Angela; the sad drift between Kathryn and her wayward son, Conor; the budding relationship between Ed and Kathryn and the touching father-daughter relationship between Walt and Mary—are all brilliantly done by Amidon.
The novel works because it confirms Amidon's strength as an expert chronicler of our times. The paranoia, the insecurity that slowly builds up at the end is not whipped up solely by some external factors. It is fed and fueled by half-truths and speculation whispered from one human ear to the next. Amidon shows us that in modern society—with its viral video clips and 24-hour-news cycles—true security is not really an attainable goal.
What also makes Amidon's latest novel so darned good is that it hits uncomfortably close to home. “I feel like I know these people,” my husband told me after he read the book. This is the biggest strength of Amidon's writing. Just like in his previous novels, Stephen Amidon holds up a mirror to our own selves. And as Security wonderfully shows, what stares back at us isn't always pretty.
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Splitting the Atom (1990)
- Subdivision (1991)
- Thirst (1993)
- The Primitive (1995)
- The New City (2000)
- Human Capital (2004)
- Security (2009)
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- Official website for Stephen Amidon
- Bookslut interview with Stephen Amidon (May 2008)
- CrimeTime interview with Stephen Amidon
- Boldface excerpt from The New City
- Bookslut review of Human Capital
- The Atlantic review of Human Capital
- Guardian review of Human Capital
- The New York Times review of Human Capital
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About the Author:
Stephen Amidon was born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in a variety of suburbs, most notably Columbia, Maryland, which served as the inspiration for his 2000 novel The New City. After graduating from college and waking up to the reality of life as a poor writer in Reagan’s America, Amidon fled to London, where he spent thirteen years working in a variety of jobs, including film critic for the Financial Times and books editor for Esquire UK.
His fiction has been published in fifteen countries, and he is a regular contributor of essays and criticism to newspapers and magazines in the United States and Great Britain. He lived and worked in London for twelve years before returning to the United States in 1999.
He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and four children..