Charlotte Observer

The Charlotte Observer has published an extremely thoughtful review of Extraordinary Renditions.

Andrew Ervin’s book consists of three separate but intersecting novellas, involving displaced Americans in contemporary Budapest on Hungary’s Independence Day.

The Hungary Ervin depicts – as a former expatriate himself – is tawdry, corrupt and ideologically bereft, uncomfortably on its way from former Soviet satellite to current American satellite. The Holocaust, America’s war on terror and European cultural nationalism coalesce in these tales for a convincing picture of the social disorder at the start of the 21st century.

Ervin adheres strictly to Henry James’ ideal of the limited third-person point of view. This technique works well because “Extraordinary Renditions” is about fragile states of mind, operating in a haze of incomprehension and propaganda. Because we never leave the cloistered minds of the three protagonists, the reader has to do the heavy lifting of interpretation.

The first tale is about Lajos Harkályi, a world-famous Hungarian composer who survived the concentration camp Terezín and has lived in America since after World War II. Harkályi is in Budapest for the premiere of his final opera, “The Golden Lotus.” Harkályi’s life is a series of miracles, from surviving Terezín because of his musical abilities, to the miracle he witnesses on Independence Day when a synagogue catches fire but escapes damage.

This is the celebratory work of skinheads, amid the low-voltage fascism prevalent today, and it’s all par for the course. Harkályi is very disturbed that his niece Magda, a Yale graduate, works for a consulting firm helping the American Army train Iraqi soldiers. In many ways, history has come full circle.

In the second tale, Pfc. Jonathan “Brutus” Gibson holds some very skeptical views about the U.S. Army, due to his proximity to the shady operations going on at the Taszár army base – one of the “black sites” in the war on terror. He is dating the aforementioned Magda, trusting her not to betray him in his conflict with his commanding officer Sullivan. When Sullivan blackmails Brutus and forces him to deliver illegal weapons in Budapest, Brutus must decide between disappearing or carrying out the instructions; either way, he is in imminent danger. The profound alienation of this member of the American underclass is all the more poignant, bookended by the two novellas involving musicians.

The third tale is about Melanie Scholes, a violinist who will be part of “The Golden Lotus premiere.” Whereas Harkályi is a Hungarian native returning to red-carpet treatment, and Brutus is a low-level mercenary in the wars of empire, Melanie is an expatriate with the choice of whether or not to stay. She is in a rut with her roommate Nanette, a photographer and fellow expatriate.

During the performance, Melanie gets carried away by Harkályi’s music to the point of ignoring the conductor and concluding solo in a flight of frenzy. But Harkályi doesn’t mind; in fact, he invites her to contact him when she returns to America.

Too often, young debut writers use the trope of American expatriates in some exotic land to score cheap points about alienation. This circumvents the need to come up with compelling plots, as the oddities of place drive the narrative. Ervin has avoided the traps associated with this genre.

Harkályi, Brutus and Melanie all strive restlessly for freedom, and their minds are exciting and welcome places for the reader to inhabit. Hungary (like many emerging democracies) may have made a mess of its post-Soviet freedom, but individually too many are striving too hard in too many places for us to dismiss the ideal out of hand as a practical reality.