William Boyle – City Of Margins (Blog Tour)
Published by No Exit Press, paperback £8.99. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.
First, the official blurb: The lives of several lost souls intersect in Southern Brooklyn in the early 1990s. There’s Donnie Parascandolo, a disgraced ex-cop with blood on his hands; Ava Bifulco, a widow whose daily work grind is her whole life; Nick, Ava’s son, a grubby high school teacher who dreams of a shortcut to success; Mikey Baldini, a college dropout who’s returned to the old neighbourhood, purposeless and drifting; Donna Rotante, Donnie’s ex-wife, still reeling from the suicide of their teenage son; Mikey’s mother, Rosemarie, also a widow, who hopes Mikey won’t fall into the trap of strong arm work; and Antonina Divino, a high school girl with designs on breaking free from Brooklyn. Uniting them are the dead: Mikey’s old man, killed over a gambling debt, and Donnie and Donna’s poor son, Gabe.
July 1991, Brooklyn. Donnie’s divorced, dealing with – or rather, not dealing with – the suicide of his teenage son, and living the life of a dirty cop. He’s drinking beer with cop buddies, and keeping an eye on the neighbourhood, in a manner of speaking, with his baseball bat. July 1993. Ava’s car breaks down on her way home from work. Don stops and gives her a lift, and ends up eating dinner with her and her adult son, Nick, and tentatively starting something more. Mikey dropped out of college after doing drugs in the wake of his father’s death – Giuseppe died owing $25,000 in gambling debts to Big Time Tommy. Mikey’s mother, Rosemarie, worries about her son’s future, and her own – Giuseppe may have died but his debt is very much alive. Meanwhile, Mikey follows a hunch and meets Don’s ex-wife, Donna – and, later, gets himself a job that offers a sudden clarity, and a sudden opportunity.
The viewpoint is ever-shifting between many different characters, but it’s all about connections and links and interlinked threads: Rosemarie works for Ava. Nick taught Mikey. And Don is of course Donnie, who used his bat on Mikey for getting too friendly with teenage neighbour Antonina, and on a job for Big Time Tommy that went wrong. Nick is determined to write a film script; Don’s story is the perfect material. Ava’s response is somehow ominous: “Think twice before you do something stupid.” We know that isn’t going to persuade him…
Nick, still living at home despite having a job and a girlfriend, has dreams he’ll never get round to reaching for. But Antonina has aspirations and determination. The youngest of the voices featured, she’s desperate to escape the neighbourhood – she remembers how different Mikey was, returning from college for that visit we witnessed in the opening: “He’s the only guy from the neighbourhood she’s ever known who has renounced being from the neighbourhood. He looks different, acts different, talks different, even if the neighbourhood is somehow buried deep in him.” The neighbourhood, as we’ll see, is deep inside all the characters, however much or little they show it or admit it.
As the book unfolds, some lives are drawn together and others pushed apart; old connections are revived and new connections are made, some serendipitous and others deliberate. Bad things happen (though note that the cops aren’t called in), and people struggle with actions, motivations and old ties that bind. But there is also black humour (I did enjoy Nick’s neat comeuppance) and the everyday details – especially all the food keeping the old country alive even as these generations wrestle with their Italian heritage, the loss of language, the waning influence of the church – keep things in balance.
In a recent online event for No Exit Press, Boyle spoke about his own conflicted feelings for his old neighbourhood – the nostalgia and yearning for the neighbourhood he grew up in, but doesn’t belong in now, despite many visits and having family still living there. It’s a feeling most, if not all of us, has experienced in leaving home for university; getting a job in a distant city; meeting a partner and moving with them. However, I doubt any of us could write as beautifully about our old haunts as Boyle does here. The easy style and homely feel of City Of Margins, the authentic dialogue and details of places, people, actions and objects envelop the reader from the first page. It’s less like visiting, more like we are inhabiting the place through his words. Even the grimier elements are described with the eye of someone who loves the place even as they wanted to escape it.
Danger. Desire. Death. Relationships. Redemption. Revenge. Wild West crimes; frontier justice. City Of Margins is a masterful novel in its complex weaving together of so many lives, so many viewpoints, with such a lightness of touch, and it lingers long after the covers are closed.
William Boyle is from Brooklyn. His debut novel, Gravesend, was shortlisted for the Prix Polar SNCF, nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. He is the author of the Hammett Prize-nominated The Lonely Witness (No Exit Press), a book of short stories, Death Don’t Have No Mercy, and the novel Tout est Brisè, released in France by Gallmeister. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.