America's dark heart

<strong>Callisto</strong>

Torsten Krol <em>Atlantic Books, 436pp, £10.99</em>

Callisto's jacket assures readers that "once you start reading this weirdly cool novel of coincidence, conspiracy and corruption, you will not be able to stop". Such promises are rarely fulfilled, but more than 400 pages later, it seems that the consistently excellent Atlantic Books is on to another winner.

But just who this winner is, is something of a moot point, for Krol - already acclaimed in Australia and New Zealand for his fantastical first novel, The Dolphin People - is a recluse. His editor and agent know him only by email, there are no biographical details or photographs, and there are even rumours that his work is in fact that of someone we already know by a different name.

The hero of Callisto, by contrast, wants us to know everything. He is Odell Deefus, an American nobody, and we meet him on a bus. He is taking a long (he hopes) journey away from the terrible and bizarre events that unfolded around him after his car broke down in a place called Callisto, and he wants to get it all down on paper "before something else happens". He is, he tells us, "a white person not black like you might think from hearing the name". He is six foot three, speaks slowly, which makes people think he's stupid, and will be 22 years old on 21 November 2007.

Callisto is very of-the-moment. Its subjects are terrorism, Islam, Condoleezza Rice, penal reform, TV evangelism, crooked federal agents, drugs and junk food, and it is told in a voice so affectingly straight and bemused that you can't help rooting for Odell from the first page. As he says, "When I look at everything that happened, I was not a bad person yet."

What happened was that Odell decided to join the army. With no qualifications, a history of dead-end jobs and an ex-cop father he doesn't get on with, he sets off for the enlistment office in Callisto, driving his rusty old Chevy through Kansas with one thing on his mind: "The army wanted enlistees bad since the war in Iraq made guys quit signing up for enlistment. They want people so much they don't even care all that much if you don't have a high school graduation certificate."

But car trouble means he crosses paths with Dean Lowry, an angry, pork-eschewing red-neck who mows lawns for a living and lives with his aunt. Invited to stay until his car is fixed, Odell soon becomes suspicious. What is that big thing in the freezer? Why is there a freshly dug grave outside? How come Dean doesn't share the traditional American view of those "mad dog Islamites over there exploding everything they could get their hands on including their own people"? And why, when Odell accidentally knocks him out, will he not wake up?

With a body to conceal, and then the small matter of Dean's house being blown up, Odell makes the unwise decision to take over his business and home, telling everyone he has gone on holiday and left him in charge. What he does not yet know is that Dean, as well as being part of his sister's prison drug-running operation, is a terror suspect. The only good thing about this strange new world is that he might finally get to meet the woman of his dreams, Condi Rice ("so very trim and smart in her outfit with the pearls and always with a smile").

But by the time Odell is strapped into a military plane by a group of men who are not the FBI, there is a nasty feeling that this dark, satirical picaresque is stranger than fiction. His captors torture him, promise him treats (like not being dropped out of an aeroplane) if he tells them what they want to know, and constantly remind him that they can do what they like and no one knows where he is. Knowing that Odell escapes to tell the tale makes these passages no easier to read, but in the end you are grateful for every punch this courageous author didn't pull.

Whoever he is, Torsten Krol has written a dazzling, outrageous and important book - a black comedy that illuminates the darkest chambers of America's heart and reminds us that truthful fiction need never be a casualty of war.