About four pages into Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge
, I began to wonder if I would have the balls to vote against Roberto Bolaño’s 2666
is capital-A Art, written by a literary darling with a fiercely supportive critical and academic following. City of Refuge
is written by a regional music journalist with only one other novel under his beltand I’m not entirely sure City of Refuge
even counts as a novel. Although both books use fiction to examine real-life tragedies, 2666
treats the murders of women in northern Mexico with pure imagination (even the name of the city has been changed), while City of Refuge
often relies on Piazza’s own reporting of Hurricane Katrina for the heavy lifting.
When you have a book as big as 2666
and a writer as skilled as Bolaño, you’re bound to find something to like, and I did. I enjoyed some of the characters, occasionally laughed, and thought the translation was greatit read like a book written in English. His versatility is clear from his variety of settings and characters; his imagination is vivid and occasionally transcendent. But I also frequently found myself bored and waiting for some kind of payoff, which usually came in the form of a tiny thread from one of the other storiesthe appearance of a crossover character or a passing reference to something prominently featured in another story. Unfortunately, the connections didn’t weave together enough to create a rich enough universe to make me think that I was reading a single book. This reading experience nicely parallels the epidemic of mostly unrelated femicides at the heart of the book, but it also makes for an unsatisfying read.
I wonder if this is not so much a fault of the book as it is a fault of its presentation. Bolaño wrote the book while he was dying, and intended it to be released in five volumes over the course of five years. After his death, his literary executors chose to release it all at once instead. The single-volume approach does make the entire text available to the academic reader all at once, but perhaps imposes a false sense of cohesion that leaves the rest of us grasping for connections that may not really exist. To me, 2666
felt big and baggy and unmanageablelike one of those weird water-filled rubber tube toys designed to slip through your hands no matter how hard you grip.
Piazza’s novel is not without its flaws, either. For one thing, everybody’s got a heart of gold. The characters worry and bicker and have nightmares, but you’d expect at least one person to lash out, strike someone they love, sink into drink or despair, steal from someone trying to help them, cut all their hair off, cheat on their spouse, get a memorial tattoo, commit suicide, disappear without saying goodbye
something, anything to reflect how wounded these souls are. But it doesn’t happen. Everybody comes through the storm stronger and better, and most discover or rediscover love and the importance of family along the way. Even the people who decide not to return to New Orleans don’t abandon it entirely.
The other problem is that it’s not so much a work of historical fiction as it is a fiction punctuated by nonfiction: At several points, Piazza abandons his characters to describe the storm and the resulting floods in his own voicehe never uses the word I, but his own rage and sadness and love for New Orleans seethe visibly beneath his words. Fortunately, he never tips over the edge into screed or sentimentality or propaganda, and that’s what saves him here. Even though these nonfiction passages feel misplaced, the reading is still good.
In fact, the reading is good throughout. His storytelling is impeccable in both the rhythm of the words and the pacing of ideas, his characters’ voices are pitch-perfect, and his sentences are clear and bright and often achingly beautiful. (The copyediting was a little slack, but it’s easy to forget the red pencil in your hand when a book is this engaging.) If I’d started City of Refuge
on a weekend, I’d have read it in a single sitting.
I couldn’t have done that with 2666
even if I’d wanted to. And I didn’t want toit was occasionally interesting and funny, but rarely compelling and often a chore I resisted. In contrast, I resisted reading City of Refuge
on my lunch break at work not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I didn’t know if I’d be able to compose myself when it was time to go back to my desk.
City of Refuge
advances to the Zombie round.
City of Refuge by Tom Piazza