Adam Begley

Man on the run: Sugar Street, by Jonathan Dee, reviewed

How long can a fugitive avoid detection after holing up in a city ‘big enough to be anonymous in’?

Jonathan Dee. [Jessica Marx]

A man is driving alone across America, under the passenger seat is an envelope containing a large chunk of cash. For reasons unclear, he’s desperate to erase himself; he avoids surveillance with the inspired agility of the truly paranoid. His urge to disappear, ‘to leave as illegible a mark as possible on the Earth’, leads him to a city, ‘big enough to be anonymous in’. The clever premise hooks the reader. Will our unnamed narrator contrive to live an untraced life? And why does he want to make this new life ‘a kind of spacewalk: to step outside the capsule, to cut the tether’? What, as he would say, is his ‘deal’?

Sugar Street, the eighth novel by the American author Jonathan Dee, gets off to a slick start, helped on its way by crisp sentences, unflinching scrutiny of the American underbelly and the mystery surrounding our man on the run. Twenty-odd pages in, he finds himself a hiding place, a grim room in a dilapidated house on Sugar Street. His landlady, Autumn, rough, tough, bracingly sceptical, is happy to take his cash and swallow, for now, his blatant lie of ‘just looking for a fresh start’.

Invisible – or so he hopes – ‘in this bugged panopticon of a world’, he’s free to observe. Here he scopes out a local resource:

The library: well, it’s like a river or a brook, with a steady flow in and out (all female) and then the estuary or tidal pool of those who hang out there as long as permitted (all male). Black faces, white faces. Shabby clothes but not smelly or offensive.

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