The Geographer's Library
by Jon Fasman
Not Your Average Obituary
A review by Anna Godbersen
Paul Tomm, the narrator of Jon Fasman's wonderfully cluttered debut novel, is coasting through an uneventful phase of post-collegiate life: He's the cub reporter (in fact, more or less the only reporter) of a weekly paper in small town Lincoln, Connecticut that specializes in inoffensive community news. ("Weddings and football games. Carnivals. New store opens, old store closes," as his seasoned, ex-foreign correspondent boss describes the range of printable stories.) Paul is given the seemingly mundane assignment of writing the obituary of an Estonian professor of Baltic history, who had lived in Lincoln and taught at Wickendon College (Paul's alma mater), a few hours a away. As it turns out, the professor knew very few people, carried a gun, and frequented perhaps the least welcoming dive bar ever. As the professor's story becomes increasingly strange (the sudden death of his examining coroner, the unexpected beauty of his one known friend), the obituary becomes an obsession for Paul. He relates what follows with the hoarse and hammy, but oddly acute, tone of a Noir anti-hero (after taking a shot of mystery brandy, he describes it "searing a hole in my throat and leaving a flame trail down my gullet," with the sardonic afterthought, "I nearly fell off my stool"), and he has that kind of determined but slightly myopic impulse to fall into the twists and turns of plot. Each of Paul's chapters is followed by a chapter describing a coveted antiquity, and the theft, murder, or high-stakes poker in its provenance, and these hint at the danger and mystery of whatever it is he is trying so hard to find.
The Geographer's Library (as its title suggests) travels to far-flung locations, and its minor characters can be found in Sicily or Latvia, consorting with KGB men or retired Chinese gangsters. Fasman has in fact worked as a journalist in far-flung locations, yet the world of his novel reads strange and varied, like a place wildly imagined (as the title also might suggest) rather than documented. After all, there is alchemy in this story, too, and a twelfth-century thief or two, and a good many twists yet before Paul can file his obit.
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