- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

Some fictional characters become emblematic of their world and time — Becky Thatcher, Emma Bovary, Ivan Ilych, Winston Smith. Let’s hope we live to see the end of the place and period that the demimondaine called Gina Davies personifies here, but we probably won’t, any more than “1984” stopped ringing true 23 years ago.

“The Unknown Terrorist” describes a post-September 11 web of countervailing conditions and forces: Privacy and security, power and impotence in a city obsessed with its fear of terrorism. True to its title, the novel is terrifying. It is also captivating, in the way that a documentary on lions of the Serengeti keeps a couch potato from changing channels, vaguely hoping the pretty gazelle will get away but knowing she won’t.

One does not need to have haunted a tenderloin of livid streets and dark bars like Baltimore’s notorious “Block” to realize the truth of Australian author Richard Flanagan’s scene and story, set in another port city, Sydney. He offers a spot-on montage of the variously sharp, broken, venal, hopeful and predatory folk who populate the nether regions of a modern waterfront — lowlifes among them. He further provides scathing sketches of the trendies, wannabes and gazillionaires who inhabit the glistening condos hundreds of feet above the dirty street — lowlifes among them too.

As a novel per se, it is a masterpiece in craft and structure. Convincing as both thriller and tragedy, its plot is driven by its characters’ acts; their words and deeds affect others and their actions, which in turn prompt their friends, their antagonists and strangers alike to new actions, and can drive a victim into tighter, smaller circles until she has nowhere left to run.

Pleasant it ain’t, although like all great stories it transports the reader to a particular place in time and space: Australia, today or next week. It illuminates the world’s most multicultural city from its steaming slums and the high posh of Double Bay to the fleshpots of The (King’s) Cross, where Gina works as a pole dancer in a nadir of the low bars once called strip joints. (FYI: The stripper of old, e.g. H.L. Menken’s prototype “ecdysiast,” is to a pole dancer what Esther Williams’ swimsuit would be to a thong.)

Mr. Flanagan’s prose is as gritty as the outback, naked as a crocodile and as clear as every postcard photo of Sydney Harbor’s iconic Opera House. His situation and plot could occur in any city in the Western world (and probably already has in some). There’s been “a terrorist bomb scare” at Olympic Stadium — three bombs found in kids’ backpacks — and the news media ratchet up their “live” reports to fever pitch.

TV anchor Richard Cody’s coverage “quickly grew repetitive, then pointless … [he] continued saying the same thing over and over … while a string of so-called experts — mostly consultants wanting a job as an expert in security, terror, politics commented on each other’s remarks, which in turn repeated and elaborated the few brief comments made by the police and government spinners, all pretending that in this vortex of nonsense might be found some sign predicting what might next occur.” Therein lies the first hint of an urban ecosystem about to run amok.

Burned out by the manufactured frenzy and nursing a parched ego, Cody goes to the Chairman’s Lounge, a stygian watering hole that features nearly naked women who swing on poles, enticing customers to sop up more overpriced booze. The manager treats this recognizable face to a private show by our Gina, a.k.a. Krystal, a.k.a. The Doll, as complex a character as her compound identities. Their encounter starts a sequence of events as interlinked as parts of a food web, because as in any ecosystem all the organisms are connected to each other.

Gina is a tart with a sad past and valiant ambition — nothing more or less than to get a life. Clever in her sordid work and deft in handling her sorry clients, she has amassed a bundle of cash, just a few nights’ wages-of-sin shy of the goal she has set to buy her way out of this gutter. Smart, intuitive, hopeful, she is actually on the verge of moving up. She might thrive in a brighter world, we hope, maybe developing an innate gift, a natural esthetic sense. She might even rediscover her proven capacity to love. But there are others in her habitat.

There is Cody, of whom it is rightly said, “a little journalist is a dangerous thing.” There are denizens of dog-eat-dog executive suites, including a broadcasting veep who calls journalism “the art of making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.” At a lavish luncheon there is a flashy graphic designer who declares “Say what you like about the Nazis … they understood design… . Look at that SS uniform. Now that’s sex in black jodhpurs.”

There is a crippled art collector, who hires Gina to visit every Monday morning and strip to “Nocturne in F Minor” in the library of his palatial mansion. She finds this $300 gig worse than pole dancing, because the “doof music” in the club protects her, while “with Chopin she knew the terrible wretched truth: she was naked and alone.” Besides, this client is perverse in both his voyeurism and his collecting of unique objects, from Miro paintings to a pistol from a massacre in Bosnia. “That’s something, eh?” he muses. “Three thousand Americans die and it changes history. Eight and a half thousand Muslims die and it’s forgotten.”

There is a stranger, Tariq, who rescues the toddler son of Gina’s best friend from drowning off Bondi Beach, and with whom Gina hooks up in a spectacular extravaganza of drug-laced sex. Tariq is a handsome, swarthy Muslim immigrant, a computer expert with shady but influential connections and bags of cocaine. When a security camera captures his image, he is identified as a terrorist sought in the Stadium episode, and the chase is on. The camera catches Gina with him.

There are drug lords, drunk Abos, and a Mardi Gras parade of “sashaying queens with opera house hair … strutting grizzlies in leathers and chains with harbour bridge moustaches; men dressed in elaborate plumage like fallen birds of paradise.” There are good cops and bad cops emboldened with new powers by Australia’s draconian version of our Patriot Act.

One zealot with a badge says “people out there don’t understand all the threats, all the issues, how we have a war between good and evil happening here… . We need to give them lessons as to what is important and what isn’t.” As that local war escalates after the bomb scare, events spiral out of control, powered by the synergy of national paranoia, media hysterics, xenophobia, security fiends and craven pols. It’s enough to make fear of terror the worst terror of all and to make the best cop in the posse pause and ask, “Do you think we could get something so important so wrong?”

In the midst of this, Gina muses “Perhaps these few people needed terrorists, for without the terrorists what would they do and where would they be? Part of her felt oddly, stupidly, proud, as if she had been specially chosen for this clearly necessary role” which she plays out, first against her will and then tragically, willfully, inevitably, as the author predicts in an ominous philosophical riff at the novel’s start.

Thrilling in its helices of luxury and squalor and loyalty and lust, kinetic in its serial events that swell like a tsunami, provocative in its counterpoint of privacy, security and politics, inspired in its portrait of Gina, “The Unknown Terrorist” is a cautionary tale well worth reading — if you like your fiction raw.

Philip Kopper, who writes about history and the arts, was once a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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