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Central Square: A Novel Hardcover – September 1, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the face of yuppies' plans and transients' dreams, the poor and affluent alike strive for change while Boston's Central Square finds its own purpose for them all. Any big city offers its inhabitants both magic and mayhem. For Joe, the magic lies in mistaken identity that confers on him privileges he cultivates to both his shame and advantage. Originally from California, Joe is mistaken for African when he returns to the United States from a trip. He tells stories of shapeshifters and magic spells, which make him a celebrity, a savior among city dwellers desperately seeking meaning. Joe soon becomes an icon of the Community, a group that advocates a haphazard mixture of therapy and activism to thwart inner-city depersonalization.

Meanwhile, Paula Voorhees, a social worker-therapist, and Eric Barnes, a very married writer with a pregnant wife, meet and fall almost instantly in love. Eventually, the lives of these three characters converge in a welter of lies and guilt tinged with a prospect for healing. The magic in George Packer's novel lies in his ability to discuss the ethics of socialization and socializing without moralizing the characters into an easy closure. --Susan Swartwout

From Publishers Weekly

It is Cambridge, Mass., in November, when "the sky turns leaden and the clocks have been set back, the larger body dies and the idea of the city becomes a memory, an accident of warm weather." Into the Central Square of this hauntingly rendered hibernal wasteland, Packer (The Village of Waiting; The Half Man) leads four characters: Joe Amouzou, a black American who, returning from a year's stint in Africa, fakes an identity as an African magician and finds, to his own amazement, a surge of power in the disguise; Eric Barnes, a 37-year-old novelist in danger of being dropped from his publishing house for insufficient sales; his pregnant wife, Jane, whom Eric feels is too obsessed with the child in her womb; and Paula Vorhees, the classic other woman who hates the stereotype?she's 30, single, a therapist at loose ends. The affair between Eric and Paula endures for the space of a winter month, until Jane discovers it. In the meantime, Joe is becoming involved, almost unwittingly, with a local grassroots organization run by Paula's unctuous boss. Packer has a good feel for the sunlight-deficient lives of a typical New England winter, but the novel is more than a few deft portraits of selected urban existences. It is a graceful meditation on the moral longing and often doomed effort that go into reinventing oneself.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; First Edition edition (September 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555972772
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555972776
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 10.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,186,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Kelly Quigley on April 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Joe, an African-American from California, is mistaken for a shaman from Africa who can heal others and guide their lives down the paths of which they've always dreamed. Eric, a struggling writer, is trying to find his place in the literary world, as well as his niche in the world of his pregnant wife, Jane. Paula, a social worker, is dispirited with her job, her alcoholic mother, and the fact that she is still single in her thirties. Together, these three fascinating people find their way into The Community, and try to understand what exactly has drawn them all there and where they should go now. George Packer (The Village of Waiting, The Half Man) has beautifully depicted the pains and misfortunes of urban life in the twentieth century. Packer describes his characters and their stories with immense detail and precision and never loses the captivation of the reader. Central Square is a reminder of the moral decisions that have to be made when desire and consequences collide. Packer forces the reader to question his or her beliefs through The Community, an extremist political group who believes they can count on no one or no thing other than that which ties them together: the idea that "every other institution in our lives has failed us." Packer's writing, although moralistic, is bursting with so much energy and modernism that it never sounds didactic or sermonic. Packer's traditional style and observant approach to his characters make this novel an absorbing read on a subject which any citizen of any race or class could relate. Packer challenges the mind, the morals, the madness, and the magic of the reader by revealing the truths of three contemporary urban lives trying to survive in one Community.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By RealityWizard on October 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I picked up this book because I lived in the Boston area for 14 years--haha--11 different residences during that time, including abodes close to Central Square in Cambridge, East Cambridge, "Lower" and "Upper" Allston, and Somerville. This meant that I was in Central Square a lot, and so I was eager to see what a novel set there would be like. Well, Packer's Central Square is a whole lot different from what I experienced, and not in a good way. This novel is utterly bleak, devoid of humor or fun. Want any mention of the Middle East? TT the Bear's? Any clubs at all? Any rock 'n' roll? Not here. It's the story of a black man, originally from San Francisco, who spent time in Africa and experienced horrific atrocities, and who arrives in Cambridge and passes himself off as an African native. He comes to be seen as a healer with spiritually transcendent qualities. Other characters include a miserable social worker and her married struggling novelist paramour, her down and and out clients, and a pretty nicely satirical portrayal of a rich man who sees "Joe"'s spiritual potential. But Packer, a longtime journalist for the New Yorker, is interested in showing hopelessness here, and not much else. From my reading of him in the New Yorker, he seems to be a liberal who hopes for social salvation in politics and is continually disappointed. Too bad for him and his characters in this novel.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 24, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Packer is an American Martin Amis who writes with a powerful grasp of language, and captures the intersection of disintegrating lives with a vivid and empathetic touch. He writes women with as much insight as men, and makes Cambridge (Mass)a map of American social and cultural relations. Men who don't read novels will like this one, and women who do will like it even better. (No, I'm not related to Packer -- I just appreciate strong writing.) This book deserves to be read widely.
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