The Friends of Freeland, by Brad Leithauser. New York: Knopf, 1997. 505 pgs.
Now here is one spectacular book. Take a country that doesn't exist, add two main characters that definitely don't have sex appeal, and toss in an
ill-fated election, complete with pollsters and other unsavory characters. What do you get? A feeling of awe for Brad Leithauser, who can really, really write--and a deep affection for the two, rather unlikeable, main characters. This book has it all: deft characterization, and boisterous, rambunctious humor throughout.
Eggert Oddason is a amall, weasel-faced man who can't seem to get women, at least not for very long. Eggi tells this story, and he doesn't make himself out to be much of a hero. He is the author of forty-nine books, but he is also known locally as The Nazi, due to his moderately successful efforts to protect his homeland from foreign words and rock music.
Eggi tells his story, as well as that of his best friend, Hannibal Hannibalsson ("perfect Viking" "Olympic Champion" "splendid ruin of a man"), President of his country for the past twenty years. His country is Freeland, modeled loosely but not precisely on Iceland.
In a chapter describing Freeland, Eggi talks of public displays of affection:
Men display little public physical contact with each other. They shake hands warily, as if reluctant to have temporarily immobilized their weapon-wielding arm, or, on occasion--throwing personal safety to the winds--will hurl themselves into great, back-clapping embraces. Intermediate contact of any sort is viewed with suspicion. (pg. 63)And The Youth Question merits some thought, since Hanni needs the youth vote to win a fifth term...
What have we been fighting for?...that's the Youth Issue. They're no longer needed on the farms, more and more of which are abandoned each year. A single ship--provided it's a two-hundred-ton floating factory manufactured in Norway--can haul in enough fish to feed not only everyone in the village but foreign multitudes as well. The young have leisure, freedom to do what they want when they will--but the only place they can think to go is Independence Square, and the only thing they can think to do is to stand around, in the drizzle, swigging vodka. (pg.167)And how is the rest of the world, below Freeland, seen?
...the notion that that pair of enormous troll-dens lying at Freeland's feet, the one called Europe and the other America, might nurture a new dawn of the spirit--well, this ran counter to everything I'd ever learned. A man might well fall in love with...these clever trolls...but you would never trust them to behave uncivilizedly. They were trolls, after all. (pg. 210)The main characters are engrossing, probably because they are depicted in a realistic fashion, without all the typical hooks designed to make you like them. I couldn't put this book down! Hanni and Eggi truly seemed to materialize as I was reading this book, and I was sorry for it to end. I immediately went on BookMooch and mooched some of his other novels.
You have probably read Brad Leithauser. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review.
For a book that will capture your interest and hold it for 505 pages, read this.