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Sugar Street By Jonathan Dee Review – Damage Limitation

A fugitive is driving on an American interstate highway, $168,000 in small-denomination notes in a brown envelope under the passenger seat. Nameless and largely shorn of his past, he seems at first an archetype, an actor in a road movie, a metaphor: “the nuclear shadow of the frontier spirit, even if you happen to be travelling east instead of west”. He is heading to a city he has no ties with, where he hopes to disappear – for good.

Sugar Street is Jonathan Dee’s eighth novel; his fifth, The Privileges, was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer prize for fiction. A sprawling, epic story of great wealth, it stands in seeming contrast to Sugar Street, a brief account of living on society’s margins that can be read in a day; nonetheless they are a pair, both grappling with the same question in different ways: how to process the guilt that these days attends being a well-educated white man in America.

Adam, an investment banker in The Privileges, tries to erase it: “In the rare moments when he stepped back and thought about it at all, it was vital to Adam’s conception of his professional life that he wasn’t stealing from anybody. There was nothing zero-sum about the world of capital investment: you created wealth where there was no wealth before, and if you did it well enough there was no end to it.” In contrast, when the protagonist in Sugar Street sees an office advertising “wealth management” he finds: “never have I wanted to break a window more in my life.” His progressivism won’t permit him to erase the guilt so what he wants is to escape it: “It’s hard to draw breath in this world – to feed yourself, to move from place to place – without doing damage of some kind. Environmental damage, human damage. It’s hard to lighten your footprint.”

He gets rid of his phone, bank cards and anything with a microchip, avoids roads and motels with security cameras and trades his car for another; once he reaches his destination he rents a room for which he pays cash – six months upfront, including rates –, and then attempts to disappear into a small life, one that causes no further damage. Whether that’s possible is the engine driving the book, and it’s a powerful one: who among us hasn’t had an idle daydream about running away?

As it turns out, the practicalities – how to choose a new name, how to furnish a room and where to spend your days – are relatively easy. What proves more difficult is the web of relationships we all unthinkingly participate in, and on which we cannot help but leave a mark. The woman from whom he rents the room, the children who pass his window twice a day, a stranger in a library who does him a favour: these barely known people become bit players in his inner reality. No matter the paucity of his interactions with this tiny cast – perhaps because of that paucity – they turn into lightning rods for the inescapably human impulses we all carry within us, be they beneficent, sexual, competitive or violent. His responsibility for, and vulnerability to, other people persists even as his identity and social status are stripped away, and this leaves him facing a much starker moral problem than that of the liberal, progressive guilt which prompted his flight.

Part of the power of Sugar Street lies in its style. Its short paragraphs resemble thoughts, or asides to an unspecified interlocutor, such as: “Remember when hitchhikers were a thing? Haven’t seen a single one.” The protagonist quotes Thoreau and Steinbeck, and at times a thought is worked out at length or dialogue reported with great exactness, as though what we’re reading might be a diary – but “there’s no way for me to write anything down, much less type it or speak it into a phone or laptop”, so we really must be inside his head, eavesdropping. Minutes or weeks might pass between thoughts; in the prose you can feel the adrenaline of his initial flight wearing off, his life shrinking down to a couple of city blocks and his awareness of, and curiosity about, the wider world gradually fading out. It’s brilliantly done.

What surfaces as the months pass is troubling. His beliefs about democracy, capitalism and liberalism (“all in the lurid end-stages of their own failure”), western governments (“murderous”) and organised religion (“codified misogyny”) initially resemble those of many left-leaning people, but his justification for his decision to withdraw alters shiftily, from pious to sanctimonious, nihilistic to self-serving. The vast selfishness underpinning his desire “to make of my remaining days on earth a kind of spacewalk … to be blameless” is something he’s only dimly aware of; at the same time, there’s a nagging question about where the money is from and exactly who he left behind. Perhaps his landlady – vivid, bigoted and unapologetic – has the best measure of him, sliding a note under his door that reads “You are the cuck of all time”.

As the threats to him mount, – both physical and psychological – the ultimate test of his character emerges, just as it would for all of us. “My life has dropped the veil and turned to face me,” he realises. “I’m going to learn some things.”

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