Smoke City By Keith Rosson, 309 pgs.

Mar 28, 2018

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered in the past eighteen months exactly when life became an absurdist novel. Daily, outrages and improbabilities stack higher and threaten to topple. Razorcake contributor Keith Rosson knows this, and mirrors the funhouse in his excellent sophomore novel Smoke City.

Check it out: talented artist Michael Vale is stuck working a fast food job after a meteoric rise to fame yields both a crippling drug habit and a fall from painting grace. In the height of his fame, he cheats on his wife. Some years later, she dies young. Vale quits his fast food job, sells his last remaining painting for a fraction of what it’s worth, buys a beater, and drives to the funeral. Along the way, Vale picks up hitchhiker Marvin Deitz, who’s on a quest of his own. He’s the reincarnation of the executioner who killed Joan of Arc. Since setting flame to her pyre, he’s lived life in body after body, the predictability of life’s rhythms dulling him to the present day. In his current incarnation, Deitz owns a record store stocked with rare jazz records owned by his previous iteration. His landlord, a wannabe Boston gangster, is slated to raze the space Deitz has been renting. It’s then that Dietz sees a tabloid show in which a woman claims to be Joan of Arc’s reincarnation, and the unlikeliest of buddy narratives begins.

If all this discussion of reincarnations sounds a little far-fetched, don’t worry. It gets weirder: Across the world—particularly in California—a series of human spirits manifest. They jam up traffic as people crowd around to gawk and shoot footage to post onto their feeds. These spirits, dubbed “smokes” by the media, are oblivious to the goings-on of the material plane. That is, until Marvin Deitz engages with one.

Rosson is a gifted writer. Throughout Smoke City, he maintains distinct narrative voices, incorporating media reports and journal entries to add heft and credibility to a story that in lesser hands might not pack as much punch, or sound remotely feasible. Beyond the stylistic elements, though, what Rosson does here is create a cast of cantankerous, difficult characters—then he brings readers around to liking them. Marvin Deitz becomes an executioner because it’s the family business, and repents his decision for lifetime after lifetime, dying in unjust wars and living normal, humdrum existences. Vale believes the hype about himself and becomes a cliché, throwing away his talent in the process, then selling rights to his work to the highest (and only) bidder for pennies on the dollar, a move that stokes his daily flames of rage.  But by the end, I found myself rooting for them both.

If the cast of Smoke City can come to terms with what haunts them, than anyone can. That’s the message here: that giving up renders us powerless. As improbable as it might seem—any of it or all of it—with perseverance we might be able to get through, to let go of what plagues us like so many smokes, even though it might not be pretty or tidy. It might not sound like much, but I’ll take it. And so should you. Smoke City is a tour de force. –Michael T. Fournier (Meerkat Press,