The Friends of Freeland
By Brad Leithauser
(Vintage, Paperback, 9780679772705, 528pp.)
Publication Date: September 8, 1998
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In this roomy, bawdy, exuberantly comic novel, Brad Leithauser takes us to an imaginary island-country, Freeland, during a crucial election year.
Freeland occupies its own place in the North Atlantic, somewhere between Iceland and Greenland. A geological miracle, it is desolate ("What green is to Ireland, gray is to Freeland") -- and inspiring.
The "friends" of the title are Hannibal, an expansive, lovable, unruly giant of a man who has been President of Freeland for twenty years, and Eggert, his shrewd, often prickly, always devious sidekick and adviser, who is Poet Laureate of Freeland and the book's narrator.
As the book opens, Freeland -- long happily isolated and stubbornly independent -- is in trouble. The sins of the rest of the world have begun to wash up on its shores in the form of drugs, restless youth, and a polluted, fished-out ocean. And, to add to the complications, when Hannibal, who has promised to step down as president, decides to run again, the opposition imports three "electoral consultants" from the United States.
As the story unfolds, the histories of the friends are revealed. While Hannibal is Fate's adored, Eggert travels perpetually under a cloud. Orphaned early, he must make his way by his wits. We follow him from his youth as he adventures Down Below (any place south of Freeland), collecting women, lovers, children, restlessly churning out fifty books in his search for love and admiration, returning home at last to raise a family and to serve his friend in his political hour of need.
This huge, stunning, magical book brims with pleasures: delicious satire as the independent-minded natives meet the U.S.-trained "spin doctors"; a vibrant comic-strip vitality; and an edgy poignancy.
Best of all, Leithauser has created a whole world, at once uncannily like and unlike our own. Readers who journey to Freeland will find it both a land of wonders and an ideal place from which to view the world they've left behind.
Brad Leithauser was born in Detroit and graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is the author of three other novels (Equal Distance, Hence, and Seaward), three volumes of poetry (Hundreds of Fireflies, Cats of the Temple, and The Mail from Anywhere), and a book of essays (Penchants and Places). He also edited The Norton Book of Ghost Stories. He is the recipient of many awards for his writing, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill grant, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He recently served for a year as Time magazine's theater critic. He and his wife, the poet Mary Jo Salter, are the Emily Dickinson Lecturers in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke College. They live with their two daughters, Emily and Hilary, in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
"Whimsy, muscular good fun, and scarifying wisdom mark this spectacularly well told parable by one of America's most adventurous writers."
-- Thomas Keneally
"Readers in quest of civilized fun are advised to visit Freeland at once. Forget Shangri-La, Angria, Islandia, Graustark. Freeland has it all: a richly invented society, comical in its detail...romance wit, compelling description...and, strewn throughout this playful, wholehearted work, an array of subtly illuminating political metaphors."
-- Norman Rush
"Two wildly idealistic main characters propel this grand, sprawling, satiric novel...But its appeal lies mostly in the pleasure of watching Leithauser's extraordinarily rich imagination at play as he conjures an entire people out of the frigid waters of the North Atlantic."
-- Publishers Weekly