Looking for Monsters Under the Bed
May 17, 2009
SECURITY by STEPHEN AMIDON Atlantic £12.99 pp288
How much is security worth? In the quiet Massachusetts college town of Stoneleigh, the setting for Stephen Amidon's latest novel, it's assumed to be an unquestioned good. Amidon's protagonist, Edward Inman, the owner of Stoneleigh Sentinel Security, makes his living from selling a version of it to fellow citizens. The alarm systems, external burglar lights and CCTV cameras that his company installs in their homes help them sleep more easily in their beds.
The irony is that Inman can't sleep in his. A martyr to inexplicable insomnia, he spends his nights away from his wife and children, prowling round empty properties his company is guarding for absent tenants and driving the equally empty mountain roads that surround Stoneleigh. He has dedicated his time to making his own life secure, to stopping "the world from turning, or at least the small section of it he had been given to look after", but now he's not so certain he's been doing the right thing. When he looks in the mirror (Amidon's characters do a lot of looking in the mirror and seldom see much they like), Inman finds himself staring at "a pretender who moved through his days in a sort of trance, all his energy and strength dedicated to making sure the world around him was safe and serene and featureless".
On one of his early-morning drives along the mountain backroads, Inman comes across a drunken teenager stumbling through the darkness. ConorWilliams is the son of one of Inman's former girlfriends, and returning the boy to his mother provides Inman with the opportunity to examine one of the roads not taken in his life. He is soon wondering whether there is still time to take it. Kathryn Williams is a single mother struggling to raise two troublesome children after the departure of her feckless, musician husband but, to Inman, she begins to seem an attractive alternative to a future with his calculating wife and her political ambitions. Would he "take an axe to everything we've built up" in order to be with "some lonely woman and her screwed-up sons", his wife asks. Would he turn his back onsecurity? Few readers will be surprised when the answer is "Yes." Other forms of security meanwhile are on offer or at risk in the novel. Stuart Symes, a lecturer in "creative nonfiction" at Mount Stoneleigh College, is clinging to his reputation as the charismatic enfant terrible of the teaching staff, but, as middle age looms ever closer, he is secretly longing for tenure. Angela, the English major with whom he is conducting a clandestine affair, learns just how far her spineless lover is prepared to go in its pursuit. Her classmate Mary Steckl has an even more brutal awakening to reality when she claims that she was assaulted at the home of Doyle Cutler, one of
Inman's wealthiest clients and one of his wife's most important supporters in her campaign to become Stoneleigh's mayor. Mary's story is disbelieved and suspicion is cast on her own father, a man brought low by the death of his wife, an accident at work and a fondness for the pain-numbing powers of booze and pills. Only Inman, puzzled by Conor's silence on the subject of what he was doing in the vicinity of Cutler's home and by anomalies in the security system installed there, is inclined to believe her.
Amidon is not one of America's most flamboyant contemporary writers. Unlike some, he doesn't shout and wave from the rooftops to demand attention. His prose is unobtrusive and his storyline deceptively simple. Yet, with his dry ironies and his skill in probing beneath the comfortable veneer of his characters' lives, he tells us more than many writers with greater pretensions.
Although there are no overt references to 9/11 and its consequences, it is difficult to read a modern American novel called Security without looking for signals about the current state of the American psyche. The echoes of phrases such as "homeland security" are too obvious to ignore.
Amidon provides little to comfort his readers. Beneath the surface of his subtle and absorbing narrative lurk paranoia and the refusal to face up to disquieting truths.
Security proves an ambivalent aspiration.