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BOOK REVIEW

'Security' by Stephen Amidon

March 14, 2009|Carmela Ciuraru

"Security," the title of Stephen Amidon's sixth novel, means more than one thing. It refers to the company run by a character named Edward Inman, a company called Stoneleigh Sentinel, which installs high-tech alarm systems for wealthy residential clients. It also refers to that most basic human need, a sense of security, which in this novel proves an elusive commodity.

The story, set in a quiet college town in western Massachusetts, begins with a mundane happening: A false alarm goes off at the opulent mountaintop home of a rich man named Doyle Cutler. Yet the event ends up intensifying the problematic lives of some of the locals. Edward is stuck in a moribund marriage to Meg, an ambitious politician gearing up to run for mayor, and he's suffering from bouts of insomnia that leave him roaming through town in the middle of the night. He pines for an old love, Kathryn, a single mother trying to deal with her troubled 19-year-old son, Conor.

Then there's Stuart Symes, a handsome, divorced English professor; Angela, the 21-year-old student he's having an affair with; Mary, another student in Stuart's writing class; and her father, Walt Steckl, who drinks too much and has been in and out of trouble with the police ever since the death of his wife, Agatha.

What binds these people together is their involvement, to a greater or lesser extent, with Doyle, a reclusive man who "seemed to be the sort of person who was incapable of occupying the moment, always waiting for the next fortunate thing to happen to him." The means by which he's acquired his wealth, "debt consolidation," are as mysterious as his wife, whom no one seems to have met.

It turns out that the night of the apparent false alarm, Doyle's home was the scene of a violent incident, an attempted sexual assault -- or so Mary Steckl claims. How she ended up at the house, why Conor and Stuart were also there, and the truth of what happened unfolds slowly over the course of the novel. By coming forward, Mary causes an uproar: She's seen as a troublemaker rather than a victim.

The incident is both the focus of the novel and a trigger to reveal the paranoia, dysfunction and buried tensions of these characters. Edward and his wife are driven further apart when he spends more time with Kathryn, comforting her as she struggles to believe that Conor didn't harm Mary -- and wondering why her son got mixed up with Doyle. Meanwhile, Meg and the police think that Mary is lying about who attacked her. (Not only does Meg need Doyle's financial support for her upcoming campaign, but she has an old grudge against Walt Steckl that she refuses to bury.)

The needy Angela finds that Stuart has become secretive and hostile, suddenly treating her with a "frigid distance" rather than as his lover. And Walt, feeling culpable for the harm his daughter has suffered, becomes even more self-destructive. In a town that prides itself on maintaining its peaceful, affluent facade, Walt and Mary are marked as outsiders. They share "the same pale blue eyes and domed forehead. The same sense of unbelonging, of being dropped onto the planet from their own private world."

These various narrative threads seem to be building toward a devastating climax. Unfortunately, Amidon squanders the opportunity.

"Security" is well written, and there are funny jabs at the oppressive, claustrophobic aspects of small-town living. His characters seem like "good" people who are complicated and interesting. Edward, for instance, is a man of solid integrity and compassion, but he's cheating on his wife. Conor appears a lost cause, doomed to perpetually worry and disappoint his mother, but he's not as far gone as he seems. As for the novel's dialogue, it's mostly subtle and spare. Each of these elements ought to make for a gripping, impressive read.

The problem is not what's on the page but what's missing. Doyle is never developed as a character and is so inscrutable as to disappear entirely. He's the source of much misery, yet because he's a ghostly presence it's hard to care. And although toggling among stories makes for a nuanced whole, it also dissipates the novel's power. That structure is ultimately flawed, ill-suited for the (suspenseful) task at hand. And some strands are carelessly left shelved and unresolved -- perhaps a deliberate tactic but highly unsatisfying plot-wise.

By the time the big blowout conclusion arrives, it's an afterthought. Amidon has offered too much weighty setup and gives too little payoff. What are we to make of all this drama, and what are the consequences of wrecked lives? The novel wraps up before we can find out.

"Security" opens with ideas that seem to have a great deal at stake, yet in the end it's a vague cautionary tale about the price of secrets and misunderstandings, and the messy politics of justice.

--

Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of several anthologies of poetry, including, most recently, "First Loves" and "Solitude."

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