The revelation in the middle of Douglas Kennedy’s 10th novel, The Moment, is the kind of gut-punch that subverts everything its naïve young narrator has found out so far—without destabilizing the rich, dark novel in progress. West and East Berlin provide the subtly creepy setting for The Moment’s romance with a sudden twist.
Author Thomas Nesbitt, renowned for his travel books, has just signed the divorce papers for a marriage that gradually came apart over years of long trips and perfunctory reunions. As he holes up in the Maine cabin he bought when he realized the marriage was over, a mysterious package pulls him back to the months he spent in West Germany writing his second book, and the relationship he could never bring himself to describe to his ex-wife. Excited about chronicling the authentic currents of life in the divided country, the young Thomas of the past moves in with a heroin-addicted gay painter in a scuzzy neighborhood along the Berlin Wall, secures a gig creating propaganda pieces for Radio Liberty, and regularly visits the far side of the Wall on “Cinderella visas” that expire before midnight. But his best source of information on the German Democratic Republic turns out to be Petra Dussmann, the Radio Liberty translator whom Thomas steadily pursues through a series of smoky cafes until she starts to open up about the life she left behind.
And just when Thomas and Petra’s love starts to follow a predictable track, The Moment upends its narrative table and forces itself to start again with the risk, luckily unrealized, of losing Thomas within the new development. Rather than constraining the view of Berlin to the young protagonist’s written account, Kennedy lets it spill over into the vividness of re-remembrance. Thereafter, two Thomases interact within the narrative: the green go-getter of Berlin and the respected professor of Maine, as the latter belatedly suffers from having repressed his time in Germany for so long. And then there’s the Borgesian bifurcation of Petra herself, filtered through memory.
In coming to terms with his past, Thomas is convinced of what he believes took place, but the ambiguity (and in some cases, a pointed absence of resolution) between the various accounts through which he shuffles creates a tension that courses through The Moment’s final page. The unearthing of the love story thus pairs perfectly with the counter-narrative of an American being inducted into a culture of suspicion he arrogantly assumes can’t touch him.