From "an important writer in every sense" (David Foster Wallace), a novel that imagines a future in which sweeping civil conflict has forced America's young people to flee its borders, into an unwelcoming world.
One such American is Ron Patterson, who finds himself on distant shores, working as a repairman and sharing a room with other refugees. In an unnamed city wedged between ocean and lush mountainous forest, Ron can almost imagine a stable life for himself. Especially when he makes the first friend he has had in years—a mysterious migrant named Marlise, who bears a striking resemblance to a onetime classmate.
Nearly a decade later—after anti-migrant sentiment has put their whirlwind intimacy and asylum to an end—Ron is living in "Little America," an enclave of migrants in one of the few countries still willing to accept them. Here, among reminders of his past life, he again begins to feel that he may have found a home. Ron adopts a dog, observes his neighbors, and lands a repairman job that allows him to move through the city quietly. But this newfound security is quickly jeopardized, as resurgent political divisions threaten the fabric of Little America. Tapped as an informant against the rise of militant gangs and contending with the appearance of a strangely familiar woman, Ron is suddenly on dangerous and uncertain ground.
Release date: September 13, 2022
Publisher: Milkweed editions
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2 A.M. in Little America
Like many people my age, I found myself in a foreign city where I took a low-paying job in a semi-menial field that I hadn’t previously contemplated. This work wasn’t unpleasant. It brought me several times a day up to the city’s rooftops, above the traffic noises, where I was surrounded by the pinnacles of the city’s most ambitious skyscrapers and I caught views of its churning bay and the forested mountains in the distance. I would usually need about a half hour to check the security equipment that I was assigned to certify as operational. I would repair it if necessary. Then in good weather I would take a few minutes to savor the prospect and the occasional sea breezes so that I could recall them later, as I went to bed. I worked alone, with my own thoughts. I hoped to keep the job indefinitely, or at least until my visa situation became untenable.
The equipment was often put in awkward locations on the roofs, sometimes in crawl spaces or on walls that could be reached only with my portable step stool. On the warm afternoon when I first saw the woman who would come to occupy a sizable but uncertain place in my imagination, I had been sent to a medium-rise building on the city’s less affluent north side. The apartment house was several decades old and, like many other buildings, it had been augmented by extra stories and ad hoc structures to accommodate the recent influx of city residents, mostly foreign migrants and people from the country’s rural areas. After taking the elevator to the sixth floor, I climbed another flight to reach the door to the upper roof. The unit’s control panel was mounted waist-high to a brick wall squeezed between two rooftop additions.
I recalled that I had inspected the same unit once before. It had worked normally then. Squatting on the balls of my feet, mostly in shadow, I now opened the panel. Several tests confirmed that the circuit board needed replacement. I disconnected the power and jimmied out the board. There was a new one in my toolbox. I worked on the installation with my usual absorption, even though I was aware that someone had turned on a light in one of the new flats behind me and was moving around. Water was running. I retested the unit and put back my tools.
I rose, turned to go, and took a step past the screened open window between the flat’s cinder block lower wall and its aluminum-sided upper section. The window was apparently located in the flat’s bathroom, where a woman was taking a shower, her back to the showerhead, the front of her body facing the window. I recoiled as if I had seen something horrible, which I hadn’t. I pushed myself back against the wall where the control panel was located. I didn’t want to surprise her or do anything furtive that could provoke a call to the police. I waited a minute, thinking about my next step. The water stopped. I had barely seen her, no more than a flash of alarmingly naked wet skin.
I had worked for some time in this job, roaming across the city’s roofs. Nothing like this had ever happened before. I hoped the woman would draw her shade, but the long, low window may have provided the flat’s only ventilation. Many of this teeming neighborhood’s first rooftop additions had been broken into even smaller flats, leaving some with strangely sized rooms, improvisational kitchens and bathrooms, and inconveniently placed windows. Warm, moist air streamed from the window screen, rippling the deep-blue late afternoon sky above my head. I smelled soap possibly scented with something citrus.
My presence on the roof was easily explained, of course, and my story would be confirmed by my employer. If the police were called, however, they would be obliged to inspect my visa and my work papers. The documents were mostly in order, but not entirely: one stamp was missing and another had expired, and perhaps there were other problems of which I wasn’t aware. The residency rules were always changing. Yet I couldn’t hide against the wall indefinitely; that on its own would raise suspicions, if I were seen from one of the neighboring buildings.
The only thing to do was to announce myself. I ran a hand through my hair and straightened the creases in my uniform shirt. Squaring my shoulders, I stepped directly in front of the window screen. Half averting my eyes, I put on a face that expressed abject regret and embarrassment, and I lifted the toolbox to show the woman why I was there. I was about to mumble a few words of apology that would have been fully sincere.
She stood before me and held a flower-patterned towel away from her side. She was air-drying for now while she tried to pull a troublesome tangle from her just-washed hair. She hadn’t flinched when I suddenly appeared, even though she was looking in my direction. Her eyes were open wide. Her lips were pursed in thought. She evidently didn’t see me. A spell cast by the room’s internal lighting, the dimness in the space between the rooftop structures, and the dense screen, meant to keep out the city’s endemic gnat swarms, had rendered me invisible. She herself was perfectly seen, from her crown of wet hair to her feet. The image washed over me like a wave. I realized then that the woman was an image in fact: she wasn’t at the window as I first thought, but standing in front of a slightly fogged full-length mirror attached to the inside of the open bathroom door, opposite the window. Yet I remained in her line of sight. I raised my toolbox again and mouthed another apology at the reflection. She still didn’t see me.
Now that I was in the clear, I should have left the roof and continued on my way, but after another moment at the window I fell back against the wall that held the repaired control panel, the woman’s nakedness still filling my eyes.
The threat of being caught was real; any legal offense risked my deportation. The chance I took by remaining on the roof ran counter to every instinct for self-preservation that had governed my life since I went abroad. There had been several close calls, but not from any recklessness on my part.
I had also avoided doing wrong, or at least I had avoided doing anything wrong that was not necessary for my survival. I was aware now that in having watched her through the window screen I had gratuitously trespassed on the woman’s right to privacy—a principle that may have fallen into desuetude in the current century, yet a value or quality that I scrounged for in my own exacting days and disturbed nights. And the ridiculous words “Peeping Tom” still carried opprobrium, signifying a pathetic transgression that reminded the Tom of his sexual want.
This reminded me of my sexual want. I had not been with a woman in years. In these years, in my twenties, I had suffered many privations, not being with a woman laughably the least of them, but I was keenly conscious that it had been a long time, on another continent, since I observed a woman’s smile of tender affection, or been the target of a flirtatious sally, or been anyone’s romantic possibility, or been offered the most fleeting view of a woman’s bare, rude, robust animal body. I was ashamed by my impulse; at the same time I knew that if I returned to the window screen, and if the woman didn’t see me, I wouldn’t be taking anything from her or doing anything that would bring her harm or in any way intrude upon her existence. To turn away now, and to not be present for her ordinary female beauty, would have been an offense against myself, I thought, a denial of my humanness, a denial of life.
I stepped before the window and again made a sign of apology. It was not met with a response. The woman, who was about my age, still fussed with her hair. The mirror’s reflection gave her the appearance of being no more than four feet away. The day was humid and drops from the shower still glistened on her limbs. As she leaned over to reach her lower legs, they tensed. She continued to gaze at herself in the mirror, right at me. I took this in hungrily, just as I had taken in my views of the city’s skyline, its bay, and the countryside, with the intention and conviction that I would never forget them.
Her face was pretty, though perhaps not conventionally so, or perhaps it was conventionally pretty but transformed by the liberties taken by my covert observation. I looked into the depths of her eyes. They suggested, to me in this moment, receptiveness and sympathy. I gifted myself the thought of what it might be like to be kissed by this woman.
As I stared, I wondered if I had seen the woman before. Of course, I had seen her before, only two minutes earlier, when I passed in front of the window screen as she came out of the shower, and then again a few moments later when I looked back, and again in the past thirty or forty seconds, when I was directing at her the entirety of my attention. I was aware that this was likely an illusion of familiarity, with which I had some previous experience, discovering that it could arise in any close quarters, say in a café or on a train. You notice somebody, they make a strong impression, and then when you see them again shortly later, the first instance feels like a long-standing memory. Disembarking from a long international flight, I often felt that I had known some of the passengers my whole life, though I was acquainted with them only from having observed them walking to and from the toilets or reaching for their blankets in the overhead bins. The sense that I might recognize this woman was the same kind of self-deception, I told myself. But I found the thought unpersuasive. I continued to wonder if she was someone I had once seen in the street, or on the Corniche, or on a bus. Or was she someone I had known in the past, from my first travels, or from even before then? Could she possibly be an American?
Some vague recollection stirred, but I didn’t trust it. I knew how intensely I thought of America, how regularly I imagined myself there, walking the shady, cracked, root-heaved sidewalks of the small community in which I had grown up, or entering the diner, or taking my position on the county ball field. At night whatever dreams made sense usually took place in America; when I woke I was often surprised to find myself abroad. It might take me several moments to remember where or especially why, a complicated series of causes and effects. In my daily life on the streets of this foreign city I couldn’t stop looking for things and people that were at least remotely connected to America, evidence that the place still existed. I wondered now if this intense longing for home had somehow conjured my sense of half familiarity with the woman, the object of a parallel, not-too-dissimilar kind of longing.
The woman’s hair had been untangled and she made some private smile at a private thought, though of course the smile was not as private as she believed. I wished I could know the thought that inspired it. Then she turned and reached somewhere beyond the edge of the mirror’s image. The bare expanse of her back was presented like a pristine, unpopulated territory. When she faced the mirror again she held a pair of black plastic-rimmed eyeglasses in her hands and I realized that a component of my invisibility might have been her nearsightedness. She raised the glasses to her face. Without even a lingering last look, careful not to kick the gravel on the surface of the roof, I moved quickly from the window. Two more assignments were left to my day.
I didn’t tell anyone about this odd, happy adventure. I suppose if I had some close male friends, as I once had in another life, I might have related the story excitedly: You wouldn’t believe what just happened to me! I would have elaborated upon my rooftop predicament. My buddies would have been amused. Perhaps raising a toast to her beauty, they might have even shared similarly providential experiences. Now, among my few acquaintances, some from countries with unpredictable, stringent mores regarding the male gaze and the female body, the story would have been embarrassing and a confession of wrongdoing, even untrustworthiness.
I wouldn’t have told any of the men with whom I shared a flat, which was located in a cinder block mid-rise near the beltway, on a desiccated plain of cinder block mid-rises. We kept a wary distance from each other and from each other’s personal illegalities. There were nine of us, three to a cell-like room, all of us migrants, all still learning the local language, all with probable visa infractions.
None were Americans and I knew very few compatriots abroad. Americans kept away from each other then. We were humiliated by what had happened; we would have reminded each other only of our grief and our shame. Also, when two Americans met, you couldn’t know which side the other had joined, nor what actions that person had taken, nor what he or she had suffered. In going abroad we had shed the many indicators of partisanship—haircuts, clothing choices—to fit in more easily among the local people, if that was possible, or at least to gain some anonymity among the population of migrants from other countries. We tried to remain invisible to each other.
I certainly didn’t advertise my nationality among non-Americans. People around the world shared contempt for how far our country had fallen. Some of that contempt was expressed with pleasure. They recalled our former national pride, which they had considered, even at the time, vain and overweening. They remembered too how we had dominated international politics and global popular culture and the many errors, or crimes, we had committed at home and abroad, now under investigation by an international commission. They remembered the sanctimony. They remembered the lectures. They remembered the displays of entitlement. The wars too. They were glad for our comeuppance even when it had presented difficulties for their own countries. Some of these countries had inevitably replayed American political arguments and social disputes, ...
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