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In Print: a stand-up star gets serious

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Robert Newman's The Fountain at the Center of the World is an old-fashioned protest novel, a gripping tale of antiglobalist political action that culminates in an exhaustive account of the 1999 WTO dustup in Seattle. Newman has the perfect populist resume for such a project--according to his author bio he's worked as a farmhand, house painter, teacher, mail sorter, social worker, mover, and broadcaster, and he's "been politically active with Reclaim the Streets, the Liverpool dockers, Indymedia, Earth First!, and People's Global Action."

What the bio doesn't mention is that the 39-year-old is still best known in his native England for his early career as a hip young "rock 'n' roll" comedian, a hero, sex object, and catchphrase supplier to millions of British teens. In the early 90s he and partner David Baddiel starred in a pair of cultishly adored BBC2 shows, The Mary Whitehouse Experience (which started out as a radio program) and Newman and Baddiel in Pieces. A mix of sketch comedy and stand-up, the shows shot Newman and Baddiel to stardom. Recurring characters like two elderly British academics, the warring hosts of a dreary TV program called "History Today" whose shows invariably degenerated into juvenile insult comedy, were beloved nationwide, as was their signature taunt, "That's you, that is." In 1993 the pair performed a live gig that sold out 12,000-seat Wembley Arena. When a video of the stadium show was released it sold 800,000 copies in three days.

"I'm very proud of being a stand-up," Newman says. "I just didn't want to be in the same position in the U.S. as I am in the UK, where every review of the novel is the same and goes like this: 'Hey, wait a second. I know this guy--he's a clown. Who does he think he is? Everybody knows that this type of novel should only be written by posh and privately educated people, people such as your reviewer who has himself never had to wear a revolving bow tie for money, still less throw a bucket full of glitter!'"

After the Wembley performance, Newman turned his back on stardom and gave up on stand-up almost completely to concentrate on writing, publishing two well-received novels, Dependence Day (1994) and Manners (1998). In 1998 he also returned to stand-up, and his act has since evolved into a mixture of comedy and progressive politics. His most recent show, the highly successful From Caliban to the Taliban: 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention, is roughly 90 minutes of jokes, quotes, and obscure facts detailing the history of Western imperialism. His U.S. book tour--conducted by bus and train instead of plane because of environmental concerns--includes readings from the new novel and bits from Caliban.

"I took great heart from reading the agitprop produced by [direct-action provocateurs] Reclaim the Streets when I found it in '98," Newman says, describing his shift toward more socially conscious art. "Suddenly here were people who felt the same way as me! This gave me a little more courage in my convictions. I no longer felt so odd to be thinking what I was thinking, or if odd, then at least in good company: with all the other oddities dressed in fluorescent pink and silver dancing to gabba techno and dancing through the fountain in Trafalgar Square wearing medieval bodices."

The Fountain at the Center of the World (Soft Skull Press) is Newman's first novel to be published in the U.S. and--obligatory mentions of his past notwithstanding--has been garnering very favorable reviews. One of the strongest aspects of the book is the complex juggling act of the plot, which focuses on Chano Salgado, a Mexican water-rights activist on the lam, and the various people trying to track him down. Rife with crossed paths, chance encounters, and missed connections, the narrative jumps back and forth across national borders and class lines, evoking the strange juxtapositions and sudden disruptions of a global economy.

"Most so-called social novels or political films just end up suggesting that the particular injustice they have described is some kind of one-off," says Newman. "Once the rotten apple is removed the system will be fine. Is that really true? Does that really fit in with what we have seen or heard of this world?"

To convey the universality of the issues while crafting engaging specifics, Newman says he studied books by John Steinbeck, John Berger, and "the original Chuck D, Charlie Dickens." To capture the lives of the globally disenfranchised, he learned Spanish, traveled through Mexico and Central America, and visited refugee detention centers and similarly gritty locales.

Chano's long-lost brother, Evan Hatch, is a British-raised media flak who massages public opinion on behalf of trade groups and transnationals bent on privatizing the entire U.S. water supply, among other nefarious projects. Newman mastered the creepy lingo of "issues management" (which includes gems like "astroturf," slang for a fake grassroots movement) with the help of internal literature and some moles in the business.

"Now and then I get accused of indulging in sci-fi when I'm sharing actual research about stuff that happened last year!" he says. "Some reviewers have described the plot to privatize the world's water supply, for example, as a bit far-fetched. I sourced that from an investigation [American expatriate journalist Greg] Palast had done, from Corporate Watch, and from the Corporate European Observatory....I remember Rebecca Mark, ex-exec of Enron, saying that she wouldn't rest until we have privatized every drop of water."

Newman's at Quimby's, 1854 W. North, at 8 PM on Friday, March 12. It's free; call 773-342-0910.

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