That younger couple, Christina and Ludlow, will become the Brettigans’ generational mirrors, and their entry point into the Sun Collective. If they are sketchier characters, both in Baxter’s depiction and in the reader’s eye, that may again be Baxter’s point. Or it may be the times.
Are they brainwashed anarchists? Designer-drug-crazed criminals? Sweet hippies? Hard to say. Similarly, the Sun Collective itself comes across as fuzzy, or, as Christina describes it: “kinda anarchic, with some universal basic income proselytizers and democratic socialists … urban farmers, 12-step groupies, you know, activists for this and that.”
This and that sounds about right. The Sun Collective’s mysterious leader, Wye, talks like a Buddhist with anger issues. And is there a worse form to read than the manifesto, that dull fusion of crazy and vague? “Stop bad love,” this one insists. “Bomb this bad love and get right with your hearts. Bomb the power. Bomb the plate glass, bomb the store dummies, bomb the consumers, bomb the bankers, the businessmen, the hucksters, bomb the oligarchs, the thieves. The mall is a disease.”
This is one of the dangers of writing fiction that aims to capture the current moment. The current moment is a slippery bugger, not inclined to wait for publishing schedules. After a summer of actual riots, of racial and social unrest over the very real and nonfuzzy, heart-rending issue of police violence against Black Americans, the simmering rebellion of the Sun Collective feels like a halfhearted thought experiment.
There is no shortage of action involving the perpetually stoned Christina, the slippery Ludlow and the other anarchists, and Baxter delivers a satisfying resolution to the story line of the Brettigans’ missing son, but lingering questions about the effectiveness and the ethics of such resistance — let alone what they’re really up to — never go much deeper than the manifesto.
Luckily, there are always Harold and Alma to return to, and they anchor the story because of Baxter’s generous eye and keen observational humor. They are charming and ingratiating, clearly in love and genuinely baffled that they’re still together. “She bit into another small square of roast and chewed thoughtfully. Because it hurt him to watch her consuming so much salt, he thought he probably still loved her.”
I’m not sure if their relationship really does represent post-love, or exhausted love or overwhelmed-by-the-state-of-the-world love or just plain love, but their well-meaning suburban angst is gently satirized and perfectly drawn: “When she was out running errands, Alma left the radio on to deter break-ins. Burglars hated NPR, she believed.”