It began with an argument as to what was the quickest way to get from Greenpoint to SoHo. Stockdale maintained that if you grabbed the Z train from Nassau Street, you could be sipping a gin and tonic on Houston within ten minutes. D8mon, who had never had much luck with the Z, spoke rather passionately for the % train— true, sometimes it did not come for hours, and sometimes it came twice within two minutes, but once you got on, it was a straight shot across the Abandando Bridge, twenty minutes at the very most, and there was a dining car that sold the loveliest little bits of finger food. Admittedly, they only accepted payment in guineas, but one never knew what was in one’s pockets, and sometimes you could trade with one of the other passengers.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever ridden the New York subway system, that vast esophageal labyrinth, that there is more to it than the MTA will admit. Indeed, there are few places in which the world that M inhabited and the world known to the rest of us parallel each other so closely. Who, standing on a trash-strewn platform in a far corner of Brooklyn after midnight, has not had the sensation that if they let the 3 pass them by, the next train would offer passage to some strange and foreign existence? Who hasn’t waited until right before the door closed, only to see their conviction dissipate in the face of reality’s cold waters, and the certainty that the next train won’t roll past for another half hour? (loc 401-411)
I usually have time each night to read a few chapters before bed, and this book turned out to be ideally suited for that. Despite its title, which explicitly calls itself out as a novel, the book is written as connected short stories – one per chapter – that mold into a year in the live of M, an apathetic drifter with a problem conscience.
M, superficially at least, is content to be back in Brooklyn, drinking in the same bar every day and keeping his head down while he grifts and sleeps his way through the borough after spending years travelling the world. He, like many of his associates, lives in limbo between mundane reality and a magic fueled existence and is consequently blessed with something akin to immortality. Far from making him ambitious, or a hero though, M is bored. His needs are few, but his friends are needy, and his enemies powerful and insane. Such a combination doesn’t make for a restful existence.
Polansky is a sharp, witty, original voice, and I believe even those who aren’t fans of the urban fantasy genre could find a lot to love about this book. It’s a strange one – there was a chapter toward the end that was clearly going to delve so deep into horror that I just skipped it (I made the mistake, years ago, of reading a similar section of Neil Gaiman’s first volume of Sandman, and I still haven’t been able to scrub the images from my brain). I suspect the section was important, but the structure of the book was forgiving enough that it was my choice to excise it and keep reading anyway.
This is the book I plan to give to all of my too smart for their own good oddball friends this year. I know it will amuse them as it did me, and it will trigger the imagination in a way that should be done as winter sets in and synapses start to dull. We all need a dreamy world during the dark days, a flight of fancy to remind us of both easier days, and of how easy we have it when sunk deep into the turning page.