Book review: Give and take

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GIVE AND TAKE by STONA FITCH Two Ravens Press, 232pp, £9.99

THE story behind the initial publication of this scintillating novel is a pertinent and subversive one that just might revolutionise the publishing industry, so it's worth going into the details a little here.

Fitch, a brilliant and underrated American writer, decided one day to do something for charity. So he set up Concord Free Press, a "generosity-based" publisher in which everyone – writer, editor, printer et al – donates their services for free. The idea was to publish small print runs of a few thousand books of quality fiction and give them all away for nothing. They'll even post them to you, anywhere in the world. The only condition is that recipients are asked to read the book, donate any amount of money to a local charity, then pass it on to someone else to do the same.

So far Concord Free Press has published four books, and achieved donations of well over $100,000 for charities around the world, and that's only the money it has been told about on its website.

Considering the size of the operation, that's a staggering amount of money generated for good causes, much more than would have been generated through sales, and it's a business plan, if you can call it that, that has the mainstream publishing industry understandably rather nervous.

The books published so far have been from disparate overlooked writers, but it was Fitch's own Give and Take which hit the world first, an appropriate choice given that it deals subtly with the very same themes of generosity versus consumerism and charity versus commercialism that Concord Free Press is addressing.

Since that giveaway, Give and Take has been picked up for more conventional publication in a number of countries, including this edition from small Scottish independent Two Ravens Press. The fact that it has also been picked up by a major US publisher despite there being several thousand free copies floating around speaks volumes for the quality of Fitch's work.

The author's previous novels have been violent thrillers and dystopian future fiction, so Give and Take is a more conventional tale; but beneath it beats a revolutionary heart.

The story is told by Ross Clifton, an accomplished jazz pianist who spends his life on the road playing the high-end clubs of the Eastern United States. When he's not collecting a jarful of tips, Clifton is an accomplished thief, replacing glamorous female fans' hefty diamonds with imitations and lifting top-of-the-range BMWs from the street to be sold on the black market in the Far East.

Instead of living the high life with the profits, Clifton gives away the proceeds from these activities, randomly slipping money into mailboxes in deprived areas or helping out others in need. Sick of a consumerist past which made him miserable, he is a detached, clinical modern day Robin Hood, content but alone.

So far so good, and Fitch's prose is wonderful at portraying the action and thoughts of Clifton as he goes about his legitimate and illegitimate business. Throughout, Fitch deftly juggles big questions about how to live your life with a page-turning plot which would be the envy of many conventional thriller writers.

As the book progresses, Clifton's life becomes more and more complicated. First his 16-year-old nephew Cray is foisted on him for part of his tour, then he starts to fall for nightclub singer Marianne London, who also happens to have a light-fingered sideline, in her case identity theft of wealthy businessmen to pay for her mother's hospital care. Clifton's domineering father falls ill, and as the net closes in on his and London's extracurricular activities, the danger to himself and those he loves becomes life-threatening.

This is a morally ambiguous tale in which everyone seems to be working various angles, and Fitch does a great job of sneaking big ideas about the nature of worth in a consumerist society under the radar. The prose is understated but pitch perfect, especially Clifton's thoughts and feelings on jazz, suggesting the writer has a musical background.

Elsewhere there are beautiful resonances and echoes as storylines dovetail to create a mesmerising whole, a complex and subtle book which manages to entertain while also launching a warning shot about the potentially disastrous end point of the current obsession with free markets.

This is a clever, thrilling and deeply satisfying novel. Get your hands on a copy, whether you have to pay for it or not.

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