Book Review: This American abroad is far from innocent


  • ‘THE APARTMENT’ by Greg Baxter; Twelve ($24)

At first, the setup may seem familiar. An American military veteran — alienated and adrift after a war — wanders through a chilly European city in December. He pals around with an intelligent and alluring young woman, about half his age; at bars and cafes, he encounters fellow expatriates, as well as natives who view his wealth and nationality with envy and suspicion.

If you’ve read enough Graham Greene, Paul Bowles or Robert Stone, you may think you know what’s coming. You’re ready for a shift, the moment when the calm mood will be shattered, replaced by something sinister, even violent. But although a sense of dread hovers over much of Greg Baxter’s lucidly written and astutely observed debut novel, “The Apartment,” that drastic change never arrives.

The novel is set in an unnamed city, one where “intense joy and intense sorrow are extinct.” The city and the locations in it are fictional, but they recall aspects of Vienna, Budapest and Berlin, where Baxter, who was born in Texas, now lives. The story, appropriately, takes place in a single day, and the novel itself is short enough to be read almost in real time over a leisurely afternoon and evening. We follow the narrator, who has been living in a hotel, as he tries to find an apartment. He is aided in this odyssey by Saskia, a smart, hard-partying 25-year-old economics student whom he met at a gallery opening.

One of Baxter’s most entertaining and insightful sequences occurs when his narrator encounters a fellow veteran, a former Army guy named Early, who chews tobacco, speaks with a drawl and blasts the Oak Ridge Boys while tooling around in a black Range Rover. But midway into the conversation, Early drops the accent and turns off the tunes.

“I’m only messing with you,” he says. It turns out that Early is a history buff who is a fan of “The Aeneid” and the composer Alban Berg, thus undercutting our expectations for a war vet character, just as Baxter continually undercuts our expectations for his novel.

And it is precisely this sort of subversion, along with the author’s shimmering prose, that makes “The Apartment” such a surprisingly compelling read and so apropos; it captures the mood of the current moment and what seems to be a new “lost generation,” one formed not so much by exposure to violence, as immunity to and alienation from it. Once upon a time, there was no place like home; in Baxter’s world, home, it seems, is no place.

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