Off the top, I’d like to say that McIlvain is a consummate crafter of words. Each word of his prose carries real weight, and it has the cadence of late period Jonathan Lethem. In fact, this book reminds me a bit of Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, just not set in the past and is not loaded to the gills with all sorts of philosophical references. Another trick that the author McIlvain employs is letting his characters speak in monologues. Now, a piece of writing advice given to young writers is to generally avoid monologues. However, McIlvain avoids any pitfalls associated with this device by doing it masterfully. His characters speak of past experiences in the same way that two friends might share a story at a coffee house in a social gathering. This creates a closeness between the reader and characters, as though the former is a fly on the wall in the latter’s (fictional) lives. So McIlvain is a prose stylist who knows what he’s doing. Sadly, though, as much as The Radicals is compulsively readable and effortlessly enjoyable, I do think that the moment for this novel is past ... The Radicals is hardly radical, but, in a pinch, it’s good to go?—?especially if you favour style over substance. While the material might be lacking in some respects, this is a dazzling work from an author worth paying some attention to. A masterwork may not be far behind. Stay tuned.
Rich in socialist ideas and jargon, McIlvain’s exploration of the world of protesters will resound with readers interested in the personal side of dissent. McIlvain offers far more than political commentary, though, as he explores friendship, loyalty, and betrayal in a tale driven by tension and suspense.
The Radicals certainly ends on a soaring, rhapsodic note. But the novel is most satisfying when it doesn’t soar; when, for example, in Manhattan at nightfall a drunken Eli watches 'the mysterious switchboard of the opposite buildings activate, permutate, the lights blinking on and off, shifting, sending mysterious signals' or when a desperate Eli loiters outside Jen’s workplace, 'waiting with the manic, rattling feeling of a man who can see a giant countdown in the noonday sky.' This is McIlvain at his best, keeping his eye on the ball.
An ability to suspend disbelief is useful when reading fantasy or science fiction. But sometimes literary fiction requires this, as well, as a character might undergo a not entirely convincing transformation. Take, for instance, a budding poet who morphs into a Marxist militant. That’s the very nearly implausible trajectory of character Sam Westergard in Ryan McIlvain’s second novel, “The Radicals,” which otherwise hauntingly depicts the devastation that results from according ideology precedence over human life.
Readers may find it helpful to have nodding familiarity with Marxist and Trotskyist thought to get some of McIlvain’s learned humor, but old-school lefties will surely nod in appreciation and recognition at his knowing description of communard angst ... Altogether, the story seems a touch more labored than McIlvain’s assured debut effort but still memorable, the details just right. A welcome return that will leave readers looking forward to future work from McIlvain.