By Daniel Alarcon. Riverhead Books, $28.
Although the idealistic young protagonist of Daniel Alarcón’s new novel, Nelson, cannot emigrate from his nameless South American country to the United States, he lands a dream job at home, as an actor: The aging members of a formerly rabble-rousing theater troupe called Diciembre cast him in a touring revival of their allegorical play The Idiot President. To commit himself to “the play’s constructed universe”—as prescribed by Henry Nuñez, legendary political prisoner and the play’s solipsistic author—Nelson cuts ties with his mother, his lover and the desires of his past. When a new destination appears on the company’s itinerary, however, the trip becomes longer and stranger than anyone could have imagined.
The story begins simply enough, but eventually weaves in more and more elements of life in an unstable region. Subjects such as love, friendship, provincial politics, the drug trade, idealism in art and the penal system slip into the tale almost imperceptibly. Step by curious step, Circles reveals itself as a detective story, complete with unreliable narrator and a harrowing, unpredictable finish. While there are certainly awkward aspects to Nelson’s fall, the book’s rhythm and pacing smooth over any bumps. He’s drawn to his fate—as is the reader.
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