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The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman

Sandra Newman is a 49-year-old American writer now settled in New York after spending most of her adulthood in England--starting when she was just 17, as she recounts in swift, moderately harrowing detail in her 2010 memoir, Changeling. She's also lived in Germany, Russia, Malaysia, and elsewhere, and has worked as a prostitute and a professional blackjack player, as well as in low-status editorial jobs. Her jumpy, alienated 2003 debut novel, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, was shortlisted for a Guardian First Book Award; 2007's Cake, replete as it is with drugs, homicide, and pedophilia, garnered less praise but is just as accomplished. Each novel favors pomo distancing techniques, and each stars two pairs of female-male siblings or near-siblings, none related by blood. Half of these eight bohemian outsiders function as fully autonomous adults long before they turn 20, the rest not long after.

Although the pomo stuff doesn't impair clarity much, it's a little affected, and there wasn't anybody in the two novels I enjoyed spending time with: these are the kind of self-regarding cynics who long ago moved me to label myself an anti-bohemian bohemian. Yet both are pretty remarkable. Newman doesn't idealize or sugarcoat her characters, leaving prigs like me free to mistrust them. But she accounts for their flaws with palpable compassion, then tops that by plotting a portion of uplift into denouements that could pass for happy endings. This bespeaks considerable moral complexity and a hell of a skill set--but not a skill set also capable of a book that reads like this: "I lead her to our walking highway, private in this nightish hour. Road be like a valley of sky between the forest's detail life. Where we come out, a roadsign lean: SPEED LIMIT 65. In woods across, is horses tethern, and one blackish pony look up to us curiose. Munching sprig hang from his mouth."

Lyrical where the other novels are clipped, epic where the others are microcosmic, PG where the others bend to offend, luxuriously imagined where the others seem translated from life, Newman's 580-page post-pandemic tale The Country of Ice Cream Star is basically a pop novel--the kind of near-future sci-fi that transmuted what was once dubbed cyberpunk into what is now buzzworded dystopian fiction. But though it's safe to assume that the dystopian mini-trend reflects widespread anxiety over the ecological disasters most book buyers can see coming, exacerbated by the systemic financial instability only Wall Street hustlers argue is behind us, this says more about novel readers than novel writers. For authors like Newman, dystopian settings provide a narrative opening: an opportunity to reimagine human relations in a smaller world of one's own devising. Nothing in her previous work would seem to presage its formal and emotional departures.

Ice Cream Star's world is situated sometime around what we would call 2100. In "the Massa woods," where the first 200 pages take place, reside just 400 or so humans. All are of African descent, divided into four tribes: the slaveholding Nat Mass Armies, the pastoral Christings, the tech-savvy urbanist Lowells, and narrator Ice Cream Star's hunting, scavenging, lying, and stealing Sengles. Eighty years before, almost all of North America, but especially its white population, was wiped out by a disease called WAKS (an extermination rate that Newman reminded an interviewer--Emily St. John Mandel, please note--would never happen "in real life"). There are still skeletons to be found, their musty houses sources of clothing, canned goods ("The person invented Beef-a-Roni, that person be a valuable genius"), liquor, "pharmacies," cigarettes, and, last but not least, reading matter. Amid wondrous names like Dollar Saver Six Fall, Baboucar Seven Grandpa, Keepers Eight Fofana, and Progresso Nine Wilson, my favorite is Redbook Twelve Ba.

If you wonder why the names have numbers in them, it's simple. They're ages that rise every birthday--and seldom reach Twenty. The people of the Massa woods and the rest of the Nighted States may not be subject to WAKS--or may, since no one knows exactly what WAKS was. But every one of them is fated to die, generally at 18 or 19, of a disease they call "posies," which alert readers will eventually identify as Kaposi's sarcoma. So the adult characters are all teenagers, Ice Cream Star herself is 15, and Newman's big novel has a foot not just in dystopian science fiction but in YA--a development that's less surprising when you recall the adolescent-lives-in-extremis of her previous books. You could even surmise that one reason The Country of Ice Cream Star got what Newman has called a "healthy" advance, if not the $400,000 she told an interviewer she was offered if she'd make just one concession, is that it does retain YA elements beyond the ages of its personnel. Its improvement on Hunger Games-style notions of heroism is one. But far more impressive is how Newman exploits a dystopian premise to reimagine not just human relations but prose itself.

Both The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done and Cake are foul-mouthed and bluntly sexual, and Changeling doesn't mince words, either. But although sex plays an important role in the new novel, and the words sex and, painfully, rape arise often, the Anglo-Saxon obscenities librarians still censor have disappeared from a world in which excrement is called "shee." This YA-cosseting effect, however, was not the goal of Newman's diction. In fact, normalizing the novel's language was precisely the concession she wouldn't take 400 grand for, and she was so right. The conceit of The Country of Ice Cream Star is top-drawer sci-fi, and the plot is rich. But the reason I kept reading even before the story was pulling me forward was Ice Cream Star's version of a patois Newman has asserted (and bluenoses have complained) is based on African-American English, albeit laced with historically Senegalese Gallicisms like "bone" (good) and "bell" (physically attractive). The patois is a delight in itself, but Ice Cream Star's acuity, sensitivity, wit, and flow are unique to her--a distinct voice that translates readily into a distinguished prose style. Especially when she's describing her beloved woods, that style is intoxicatingly poetic--Wordsworth with ironic asides. Newman's heroine has clearly inhaled every Redbook her people could find.

Not strictly in the realm of style but putting considerable meat on it are the heroine's powers of observation and analysis. Like her two lovers, El Mayor of Lowell and Mamadou the NewKing of the Nat Mass Armies, and like her posies-stricken brother Driver, too, Ice Cream Star sees more and understands it better, commanding an intelligence her threatened people are obliged to respect. She's also as bell and brave as The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, and much more mature. But Newman might well argue that the most heroic thing about her is her capacity for love: "I ain't know what other children feel, but I swear I feel more. See my Keepers frighten, and it feel like swallowing ice." The same is true, in a truncated way, of the dysfunctional narrators of Newman's bohemian novels. The adopted Rosa Espuelas, a/k/a Chrysalis Moffat, is the only one of the debut's four principals with any semblance of a normal emotional life and ends up drawing one of them into normality after the other two die. And as Cake approaches a close, the compulsively promiscuous narrator's nicest shag tells her why he dug her: "If you want to know the real truth, I saw you had a kind heart. It was your gentleness I saw in you, I hope that's not the worst thing to say." So for Newman, this literary sci-fi cum grown-up YA may be less a departure from her avant-gardist fiction than a fulfillment of it.

As an epic heroine, however, Ice Cream Star is obliged to do more than open a furniture store with her boyfriend. It is her destiny to try to save the world, even if all she wanted was to save her brother. The plan is to woo and if necessary battle the Panish, who rule Ciudad de las Marias, as New York City is now called, and--after a brief stint as the Virgin Mary--lead her new allies down to Quantico, where she means to defeat invading Russians who've crossed the sea to trade a cure for posies for penal servitude and worse. After brilliant victories, terrible defeats, hideous violence, and idealistic acts of kindness, she comes to the realization that healing her people will require not just valor and wisdom but personal humiliation and sellout Realpolitik--a tangle of compromises and successes the novel briefly indicates rather than fully describes. So Newman has set herself up for a sequel, and why not? No Hunger Games fan myself, I found the rhapsodic beauty of The Country of Ice Cream Star's set-up somewhat more delicious than the action-packed derring-do of its quest, although the 200-page depiction of what's become of NYC packs serious satirical bite. But I have not the slightest doubt that Newman put her all into every page.

In part that's because I've also enjoyed Newman's 2012 The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner, which is what its title says: a thumbnail history with jokes, cheap ones definitely included. Like: "At one time, the Iliad must have combined the joys of an action film with those of a slasher pic. For some readers, it still does. For others, it's uncannily like reading the same paragraph over and over and over and over." Or: "Romantic poets were above mundane concerns like making money. This was lucky, since no one bought their poetry. Some were trust fund kids, some parasites. The fact that they were later recognized as geniuses has been an unhealthy example to slackers for more than a hundred years." Or, concerning Dickens: "It's not too much to say that he helped create the twentieth-century consensus that the poor deserve society's help. (Yes, it seems laughable now. But people did believe this at one time, honest.)"

You could call Newman's critical wisecracks cynical the way I called her bohemian characters cynics. But they're also fair and funny--and often moral as well. As I raced through her literary joke book I became convinced that this longtime margin dweller--who does not, as I knew from Changeling, possess anything like a Ph.D.--had downed just about everything she was making mincemeat of. As a highly intelligent and phenomenally well read person, she had plenty of reservations about this Great Tradition she'd immersed in. But she also clearly loved and savored it--and despite her pomo bent wanted to be part of it, too. "Literature is a pleasure," her introduction declares. "It should be emotionally satisfying, intellectually thrilling, and just plain fun." Newman is self-aware enough to know that many would feel her first two novels don't quite meet this standard. The Country of Ice Cream Star does.

Barnes & Noble Review, July 15, 2015