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The New City

Stephen Amidon <em>Doubleday, 432pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0385600925

It is the idea of the new city - the city from scratch, new start and new hope in a mid-1970s Middle American Milton Keynes - that shines through this densely packed, intricately imagined novel by Stephen Amidon. The neatly named Newton is erected on a greenfield site somewhere between Chicago and Washington, a Utopia that is always at risk - first from a teenage rumpus and later from corporate shenanigans, racism and murder. Austin Swope and Earl Wooten are troubleshooters, friends and rivals, who between them hold the fate of the new city in their hands: the white lawyer who bought up the land cheap from smallholders; the (black) builder who kicked ass to get the foundations laid. Under pressure for the project to succeed, they have to deal smartly with every hitch: poisoned fish in the showpiece lake; lighting system failures; the drowning of a white girl.

As family men, they believe in the dream of socially engineered harmony, where young couples from all races and classes can enjoy their barbecues in gardens without fences. They themselves appear to have model families - supportive wives and bright teenage sons. But young Teddy Swope (Harvard-bound and obsessed by John Lennon) has a sinister side, and Joel Wooten is dating the blonde Susan Truax - causing serious moral problems for their fathers.

Earl has family photos in his hallway stretching back to the days of slavery. His own history of tussles has included outfacing lazy, racist building contractors and avoiding speed cops in his Ranchero tours of the estate. This complex portrait by a white writer engages surprisingly well with the spectre of Uncle Tom-ism and with the defining American issue of race. Although sexual roles remain largely conventional, the personal and the political are neatly entwined throughout. A brooding Vietnam veteran redeployed as a salesman has problems with a foul-smelling infected hand (his war wound, a nation's bad faith). Amidon slyly meshes the details of the time - the music, the T-shirts, clothes, corporate politics and Capitol Hill antics - around his three interconnected families. Such authenticity of detail can be explained partly by the author's own teenage years spent in Columbia, Maryland (a building project designed by James Rouse, the architect credited with inventing the shopping mall). But Amidon's literary craftsmanship deserves more praise. His symbols are made to work hard; but they do work. In Swope's office eyrie, the boss plays with his Newton's cradle, six metal balls on strings - a gift from his son. Amidon's novel is like a scale model of this office, in its intricate detailing, moving parts and lighting.

Half way into The New City, something bursts through the carefully constructed exposition to produce a powerful page-turner. Amidon's earlier novel, Thirst (1992), had admirable pace and economy, but none of the social breadth on show here. With this novel, Amidon has batted his way out of the Little League; it will be worth waiting to see how many more home runs he hits.