Saturday, December 6, 2014
The End of the City - David Bendernagel
We were overseas when the Twin Towers fell, expatriates abroad, watching events unfold on television - at once heartbreaking, terrifying, and surreal. We were soon to return to a stunned and deeply grieving United States, a country which would change in ways we are even still comprehending. We were thirty-something with a newborn - our first- and among the flood of emotions called forth by the sad events of that day was the realization that this child would never know the world as it existed before 9/11. What shadow would this day cast over the lives of children - all children?
David Bendernagel shines some light on this question in his novel The End of the City (Pink Fish Press, 2013). Ben Moor is a teenager coming of age in the early 2000's, and we meet him not long after 9/11. He lives in Reston, Virginia, a planned community outside of Washington, D.C. (one of a handful of popular similar American communities, if I'm not mistaken) designed to balance residential development, commercial development and nature, to offer mixed income housing, and perhaps above all, to adhere to a consistent aesthetic throughout. It is a particular kind of idyllic suburban dream that creates - or attempts to create- a particular kind of idyllic childhood environment.
But as we know, even the most thoughtfully designed city cannot protect us from death, and neither can this community protect Ben Moor. In addition to the collective loss Americans experienced with 9/11, Ben has also experienced a more direct and personal loss, the death of his father. Ben's relationship with his father was complicated in life, and thus Ben's grief is complicated as well.
Enter the assassin - a delightfully noir-ish, black-suit-and-tied action-movie, comic-book character-style killer. He's a murderer for hire: the best of the best, taking down not only his marks but his professional rivals on his way to the top. But now he is also a target - possibly of his own mysterious organization - and must figure out how to survive. His story alternates with Ben's, as as the novel unfolds, we increasingly see that each is troubled by the growing presence of the other around the edges of their consciousnesses.
I was completely intrigued by this concept - a teen grappling with the awful reality of violence and death in real life, all the while seduced by the glamour of the same in the fiction of comic books and movies. Ben wrestles with the implications of violence - intentional violence, accidental violence, the smaller violences we perpetrate daily against each other - while figuring out just how to be a kid - a son, an athlete, a brother, a boyfriend. He masks his vulnerability with pop culture, sports, and sometimes substances, but as we see glimpses of it we cannot help but feel affected, and charmed. Ben is compelling in a Holden Caulfield-ish kind of way (smart, irreverent, out of place, wounded, a hero complex), the assassin both fun and complicated, and the story gave me plenty to consider. With the changing points of view and Ben's very stream-of-consciousness narration within chapters, as a reader, the chronological details of story line can occasionally be hard to get an exact handle on, though I found this didn't really matter in the overall scheme of things. It is chock-full of cultural references which often serve to anchor the story in the era and also within the worldview of a teenage boy - if you recognize the references easily, you will likely appreciate them - sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't, and when not, I found they distracted me. But the story was original, refreshing, and thought-provoking, and the writing smart, often moving, and sometimes downright poetic. Recommended for literary fiction fans who secretly (or maybe not so secretly, or who maybe don't even know yet that they secretly) also enjoy a good comic book.
My thanks to the author for a complimentary review copy of The End of the City. You can learn more about David Bendernagel at www.davidbendernagel.com/