by Karen Olsson

Mission to America
by Walter Kirn

The philosopher Henri Bergson argued that satire, which he regarded as a form of moral instruction, should be unforgiving in its portrayal of bad social behavior. But American novelists often take a gentler approach. These two new novels are good examples of a form of satire that might even be called sweet: their comic heroes are hapless, even foolish, but their creators are nonetheless quite fond of them.

Karen Olsson is fond of virtually all the characters-and there are quite a few of them—in Waterloo, her send-up of contemporary Austin (the city was originally known as Waterloo). She is clearly fond of Austin too, and even as she skewers its opportunistic politicians, its lazy press, its greedy profiteers, and its out-of-date musicians, she celebrates the American city-if we can accept Texas as part of America and not some foreign fiefdom. Olsson plays with both ideas: her politicians and developers use all the standard American profit- and power-grabbing tricks, but their world is so inbred and exotic that they do seem at least a few borders removed from the rest of us.

Waterloo is Olsson’s first book, a complex novel whose many characters interact in surprising ways. Nick Lasseter is a reporter for the Waterloo Weekly (Olsson, who writes for Texas Monthly, brings to the newspaper scenes a strong sense of the diminishing stakes for so many local reporters). The novel implies that Lasseter is the...

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About the Author

Valerie Sayers, professor of English at Notre Dame, is the author of six novels, including The Powers.