by Peter Cameron
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published May 8, 2002
320 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
July 2, 2002.
Although Peter Cameron is the author of six earlier books, he was wholly unfamiliar to me [in mid-2002].
Given how buried I am under books I already have, perhaps the strongest praise I can give The City of Your Final Destination is that after reading it on a Sunday afternoon, I am going to bestir myself to find his previous books.
I guess that New York City is the city of several characters’ final destination. The book begins in Lawrence, Kansas and most of it is set on a property in Uruguay that is ten miles from the nearest town. To get his Jewish wife and their two sons out of Nazi Germany, Herr Gund purchased and promised to keep open an unprofitable mine in northern Uruguay. One son, Jules, wrote a novel about the traumas of an adventurous flight from Europe and being plopped down in the middle of nowhere. He titled this book, the only one he published before committing suicide, The Gondola. It was at the boathouse (which is no longer on a lake, since the dam that created it collapsed) that he shot himself, and it is at the same boathouse where his would-be biographer has a life-changing experience.
Omar Razaghi, who was born in Teheran and whose physician father and family fled to Toronto when the Shah’s regime toppled, is, at the novel’s start, a graduate student at the University of Kansas with an interest in “diaspora studies.” He has a grant to write an authorized biography of Jules Gund, except that he does not have the authorization. And when he writes to request it, his request is rejected. Not only his income, but his personal and professional future depend on the project. Without a firm sense of vocation as a biographer, he is planning to give up and return the grant, but his considerably more decisive girlfriend Deidre pushes him to go to Uruguay and convince the family. Omar is fairly docile and obediently sets off—speaking no Spanish and not having a clear idea where Ochos Rios is. (It should be Ocho Rios, but perhaps it is the Gunds rather than Cameron who made the mistake…)
Omar manages to get there. Arden Langdon, Jules’ mistress and mother to his one child, Portia, lives in an imitation Bavarian schloss. Also in residence is Jules’s French-born widow Caroline. Down the road in what was a mill, Jules’s brother Adam lives with his adopted son, Pete, who had been a boy prostitute in Bangkok, but was imported from Stuttgart, where Adam ran an opera house. (The only character born in Uruguay is Portia, so that the life ways of Ochos Rios are entirely European.)
Adam recognizes that a biography might aid sales of The Gondola, thereby profiting them all. Caroline is adamantly opposed to a biography. Arden initially agrees with her, but changes her mind in part because she is impressed by Omar’s effort to get there. Also, though she has been living in the same house with Caroline for many years, being in agreement about something is a new and uncomfortable position for her. Caroline makes a compelling case against biographies of artists eclipsing the artists’ works. But she also has something to hide.
I don’t know if what happens in the novel bears any relation to anything Uruguayan, but it is a very satisfying account of twisted family dynamics with an alien catalyst. I’ve already mentioned that Omar has a life-changing experience when he goes to see the gondola. Then he nearly dies. And there is a very satisfying ending for the reader and for most of the characters.
The dialogue is almost as epigrammatic as Oscar Wilde’s. (A particularly Wildean instance: (Deidre:) “I hate it when people put books in a historical context.” (Omar:): “Why?” (Deidre: “Because it’s unfair to people like me who know no history…. And why is it always the Crimea?” Or Adam’s harrumph when Omar officiously tells him, “I have actually come to tell you something”: “People are always coming to tell me something. Never the thing I want to hear, of course….”
The sympathetic observation of characters behaving oddly is reminiscent of E. M. Forster’s novels of English men and women blundering through alien environments that are incomprehensible to them. (Though in reading Forster, I never questioned that the Italian and Indian settings were authentic.)
Deidre verges on being a caricature of a domineering, career-obsessed young American professional woman and there is nothing other than his name to suggest that Omar’s formative years were in Iran. Well, perhaps, his politeness, too. Ultimately, every one finds himself or herself (except Adam and Portia who are very clear about who they are from the outset).
Manners matter a great deal in this fictional world—as in those of Henry James and E. M. Forster, great early masters of the fiction of geographical dislocation revealing character. Adam is right when he tells Omar that a story of wives and mistresses sounds very nineteenth century. (Being gay with an adopted Thai lover, Adam suggests, makes him a better subject for a postmodernist biography.)
The City of Your Final Destination has some of the pleasures of Victorian and Edwardian novels such as careful plotting, sparkling dialogue, and a multiply satisfying ending. The rhythm of Cameron’s book is faster—faster than James, certainly, but also faster than Forster, whose understated wit, clarity, and compassion Cameron revives in this superb novel [which was made into a movie, adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and directed by James Ivory, in 2009. after the death of Ismail Merchant, with Omar Metwally playing Omar. Part of it was shot in Argentina.]
published on epinions, 2 July 2002
©2002, 2016, Stephen O. Murray