Searching for optimism in unlikely locations

May 06, 2007|By John Freeman | John Freeman,Special to the Sun

The Pesthouse

By Jim Crace

Nan A. Talese / 272 /pages / $24.95

Deep down, Jim Crace swears he's as sunny as the next fellow. He has a strange way of showing it. His 1999 novel, Being Dead, begins with the blunt-force trauma deaths of two main characters. Others feature wind-gouged landscapes, starvation, even the ravages of Christ's journey through the wilderness.

The two-time Man Booker Prize finalist insists that these locales and topics don't reveal a dark spirit. It is simply where he finds his particular brand of bracing optimism. "In Being Dead, I looked at death unblinkered. ... To find an optimistic tale in that is to find optimism, which is worth having. It's hard optimism."

Crace harvests another crop of this sturdy seed in his ninth book, The Pesthouse. Set in the southeastern United States sometime in the distant future, this new novel might be his most bracing challenge yet for American readers. It asks them to imagine an America from which people flee to better their lives. Pestilence, anarchy, starvation - the great scourges of Africa and the Middle East in the 20th century - have become the nation's problems now.

Crace admits there was a certain political comeuppance for the United States to this flip-flopping of the current world order.

Although Crace is uncomfortable with what he sees as "American world domination," writing the novel quickly forced him to move beyond that viewpoint. "I got all the fun out of that, the removal of the American dream," he says, "only to have the book make me give it back."

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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