There's Nothing Free About This Market : FREE CITY by Eric Darton; W.W. Norton $18, 176 pages


The setting of Eric Darton's first novel is northern Europe in the 17th century--and our own place and time. Recent war has coarsened the public's sensibilities. Economic change is unsettling. The gap between rich and poor has widened. Science has emancipated itself from religion but become dependent on new masters. Entrepreneurial liberty threatens to wipe out other forms of freedom.

Darton's choice to deal with such issues in a fable comes naturally to a former yippie whose anti-Vietnam War activity, his publisher notes, "specialized in creative disruptions, militant politics, nudity, low humor and flamboyant street theater."

Now a professor of media, technology and cultural studies at Hunter College in New York City, Darton hasn't forgotten the subversive effect of laughter. His narrator, L., the leading inventor in the Hanseatic port city of the title, is a blend of Leonardo da Vinci and the cartoon character Gyro Gearloose.

The ambitions of L.'s wealthy patron, Roberto, preoccupy him so much, he reports at one point in the 40 days of journal entries that make up the novel that "I inverted the quantities of two crucial ingredients and blew off my eyebrows. In the process I sprayed my face with an indigo that will not be easily eradicated."

This amuses L.'s mistress, Adela, an earth goddess whose sexual powers are matched by the potency of her magic and healing. She warns him that "I should beware of Roberto's mistaking me for a Moor door knocker, such as are common in his native land."

Even Roberto, an Italian emigre whose plot to take over the Free City is serious enough--he will turn the city watchmen into a private army, undermine the houses of his rivals and threaten bombardment from an "air galleon" that L. will design for him--employs means that are often far-fetched. For example, he teaches a duck to speak and gets L.'s help in electing it to the municipal diet, on which Roberto is unable to sit because of his foreign birth.

The duck, Friedrich, rebels against his role as Roberto's mouthpiece and tells L. about the plot. Together with Adela, who has an old grievance against Roberto, they try to save the city from the deadly alliance of riches, high technology and the would-be usurper's complete lack of scruples.

The irony, of course, is that the technology is of L.'s own devising. The unworldliness that fosters creation also makes the creator susceptible to manipulation by the worldly. Not only does L. have to turn to Roberto for money to replace blown-up lab apparatus, his scientific passion keeps him inventing stuff long after his suspicions have been aroused.

Darton's use of a 17th century background highlights a second irony. In becoming independent states, ruled by councils of trading burghers rather than by feudal lords, the cities of the Hanseatic League were forerunners of modern democracy. But too much power in the hands of businessmen, such as Roberto, leads in the other direction--back to tyranny.

How to balance the claims of free institutions and free markets still troubles us today. Beyond the slapstick level, much of the fun we get out of "Free City" comes from spotting glimmers of the present in the past (trains, zeppelins, the insanity defense in criminal trials) or echoes of the past in the present (runaway defense budgets, the cynical use of security concerns to curb civil liberties).

Then, too, an author who writes in a style not his own, as Darton does here, can sometimes surpass himself through needing to pay so much attention to every word. This is true of "Free City," whose antique prose is witty and ingenious.

The slapstick level, though, remains the most vital one. The characters are stock, their conflicts predictable. We find ourselves wishing we could see L. lose his eyebrows, not just read about it. We wish we could hear Friedrich talk, know what makes the air galleon fly, watch L.'s automated dragon make a shambles out of a city festival. In short, we wish "Free City" were a movie--not the kindest verdict on a novel that puts such store in ideas and words.

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