An intriguing tale of a lost but fascinating soul

by John Boland

An American expat living and working in London gets a phone call from the police in Berlin telling him that his sister, whom he hasn’t seen for years, has died there. He contacts his US-based father and after three weeks of bureaucratic delays in the German capital they find themselves in a fog-bound Munich airport waiting to accompany her coffin home.

The story, which is told from there by the expat, consists mainly of flashbacks to the recent and distant past, but he proves to be such an intriguing narrator – if not entirely likeable and sometimes disconcer-ting in his actions and confidences – that you end up wishing the novel longer if only to learn more about him by spending more time in his company.

Baxter, a 40-year-old Texan who lived for some years in Dublin before moving to Berlin, specialises in alienated and somewhat discomfiting narrators. Indeed, there was an element of self-disgust in his 2010 debut, A Preparation for Death, which was presented as a memoir and which uneasily attempted to blend explicit accounts of sexual encounters during his time in Dublin with essayistic philosophical ruminations.

And in his first novel, The Apartment (2012), which was set in an unidentified middle European city, the nameless narrator seemed at more than one remove from his surroundings. That book conveyed a haunting sense of displacement, but its simple storyline (the search for an apartment) could not quite bear the weight of its narrator’s philosophical and psychological disquisitions.

Munich Airport, though, is satisfyingly all of a piece, and from the outset you become engrossed in the narrator’s view of himself, his relationship with his elderly father and the circumstances that have brought them to this place.

Disgust is a theme here, too, especially with bodily malfunctions and indignities, as when the father helplessly soils himself in an airport toilet and his son has to clean up the mess. But it’s there also in the narrator’s disturbing cutting of his stomach in a hotel bathroom (a wound that keeps opening in the airport to the revulsion of fellow passengers), in his sexual encounter with a scarred woman and in his musings on the malnourish-ment that killed his sister.

But it’s an estranged form of disgust by someone who also feels estranged from family – the troubled sister he’s hardly seen in 20 years, the father who neglected his wife in pursuit of minor academic success – and from a marketing career in London that’s regarded by him as of no real consequence and a marriage there that ended in divorce.

He’s a lost soul who’s more at ease observing the behaviour of strangers than at dealing with the demands of intimacy, and the book presents him as inhabiting a world of other lost souls who are adrift, both geographically and emotionally, from whatever roots they once had.

You may be reminded of the similarly displaced characters who haunt the fiction of WG Sebald – though Baxter’s narrator is a more accommodating, indeed diverting, companion than you’ll encounter in that writer’s austere work.

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