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Originally published Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'American Subversive': A suspenseful novel of domestic terrorism

A review of "American Subversive," debut novelist David Goodwillie's suspenseful take on domestic terrorism. It's fueled by an unsettling lack of faith in American institutions that sends his characters off the deep end into violence.

Special to The Seattle Times

'American Subversive'

by David Goodwillie

Scribner, 309 pp., $24

You can't dream up better fodder for political-suspense fiction than the tense times we live in right now. But former private investigator David Goodwillie certainly tries to outdo reality in his debut novel about homegrown terrorism, "American Subversive."

In this well-paced, nuanced thriller, plots hatched and organized in the backwoods of Appalachia and New England play out in Manhattan, where the rich, hip and well-connected seem oblivious to the moral and intellectual decay those "on the far side of the American equation" see so clearly.

The story, set in present time, revolves around the bombing of a Manhattan office building, which sends shivers down the spines of New Yorkers still grappling with the memory of 9/11.

The terrorists have struck again. But which terrorists and what message are they trying to send?

Down-on-his-luck West Village journalist and blogger Aidan Cole gets a clue when a mysterious e-mail appears in his inbox with an attached photo of a beautiful young woman and a chilling note: "This is Paige Roderick. She's the one responsible."

While Cole's search for the mystery woman unfolds, Goodwillie takes us into the dark world of a band of domestic terrorists, switching from Aidan's narration to that of the mystery woman, Paige.

It turns out that Paige, a Southern girl with an outdoorsy streak, has fallen in with a lefty militant group that's opposed to multinational corporations, energy companies in particular. Its leaders, Keith Sutter and Lindsay Hardt, met at the WTO protests in Seattle. The group decides the best way to raise the public's awareness of the evils of big business is to stage violent, headline-grabbing acts, while avoiding civilian casualties.

We watch as Paige, whose brother died in the Iraq War, develops from a marginal figure in the movement to one of its shrewdest operatives. But Paige soon must decide whether the group's increasingly ambitious efforts to "budge history" are going too far.

Goodwillie's parallel depiction of New York's social scene, "a New York of public names, private clubs and the kind of parties that made the papers," is spot on.


Though linked to this other, shinier New York via his well-read culture blog, Aidan is caught between worlds and lacking purpose. So he leaps at the chance to track down the woman who evidently wants his help, enlisting his wealthy pal Touché for the hunt.

"American Subversive" is more than a good thriller. The novel highlights an unsettling lack of faith in institutions and peaceful protest that leads some to believe that harsh tactics are the only way to get noticed.

Paige says at one point, "We've become a nation that buckles down and endures instead of rearing up, instead of revolting against unacceptable circumstance. And why? Because no one will lead the way ... "

But leadership and terrorism are two different things entirely.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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