BY NICO VREELAND
Author: J. Saunders Elmore
Three Rivers Press, 2009
Elmore’s epigraph for The Amateur American is from a John LeCarre novel. Pretty quickly, Elmore’s goal becomes clear: he wants to write a spy-ish thriller with an amateur protagonist.
Not a bad premise. Chuck is back for a second season, so I suppose people like the concept. OK, Chuck is an unfair comparison: Elmore’s a good writer with a funny, entertaining voice, and he creates some great characters.
But some pacing problems and the merging of the thriller narrative with a relatively ordinary young-man-abroad subplot keep this novel from living up to its potential.
Amateur is the story of a young American—Jeffrey Delanne—teaching in France. Against a backdrop of French political turmoil and Delanne’s adventures socializing with his various students, Delanne takes a job translating for an unsavory gangster. You can surmise from the prologue (a newspaper story from the future) that the gangster job will go bad quickly. It does, and soon enough Delanne is afraid for his life.
It’s quite entertaining, despite its predictability, until Elmore jacks up his stakes too quickly; once he goes into thriller mode, the novel becomes fairly monotonous. Since Delanne has no skills—since he’s an amateur—he doesn’t do much by himself. He mostly flails around, cooking up half-clever plans that don’t work out.
Perhaps this is a personal issue for me; I prefer protagonists that are very good at something facing foes that test their abilities. I don’t much care for stories about hapless pawns who rely on the mercy or incompetence of their friends or enemies to get by (even Chuck is good at something). I never found Delanne very sympathetic, especially after he quickly commits some pretty brutal acts on behalf of that gangster.
It also seems like Elmore had a lot of material about young men finding themselves abroad, and it shows up oddly in Delanne’s ruminations about girls, and his accounts of nights out and parties attended—in the spaces between the plot beats of a political thriller, such details seem… well, amateurish.
The ending isn’t great, but it does redeem the novel somewhat, as it showed that some of the novel’s flaws were in fact the result of conscious decisions on the author’s part and an attempt at a bold, unique plotline that Elmore executes well (if not particularly satisfyingly).
Elmore’s a writer worth keeping an eye on, but Amateur tries too hard to break the mold of the thriller novel, and doesn’t quite deliver the entertainment goods the way more formulaic thrillers do. And ultimately Delanne is too much of a hapless pawn for me to get behind.