This new collection of original short stories answers the question: “What is there to fear in New York City?”
If the writers who contributed to Why New Yorkers Smoke are to be believed there’s only one thing New Yorkers are, were, or ever will be afraid of: 9/11. Seven of the eleven stories included in this collection make mention of 9/11, with six of them using it as a major plot point.
As a life-long New Yorker – one of the few actually born and raised in Manhattan- I can tell you New Yorkers have way more to be afraid of than planes crashing into skyscrapers. Like mutant rats taking over the subway system and charging riders twice the current MTA going rate for a ride. Or a fleet of rogue taxi cabs going all “Christine” and hunting down pedestrians like a pack of hungry dogs. Or that chain pharmacies will come to constitute more than half of the City’s retail outlets.
Yes, 9/11 was a horror Stephen King couldn’t have even cooked up, but in answering the question “what is there to fear in New York City”, I wish the writers and editor of Why New Yorkers Smoke hadn’t gone for the most obvious and, let’s be honest, the most tired answer.
The strongest stories in the collection are those that don’t deal with 9/11 at all. The title story by Lawrence Greenberg is a slow burning and atmospheric piece of sci-fi that totally creeped me out. Don Webb’s “Sparrow” examines the sparkly lure of the city that never sleeps, and how quickly the shine can dull and even destroy. Scott Edelman’s “A Stranger Lying Alone” was the only 9/11 related story with any real emotional weight, told form the point of view of a man who loves the City so much he would rather die in the wreckage and become a part of history than continue to live in a world where this sort of tragedy can happen.
The rest of the collection is uneven. The opening story, Barry N. Malzberg’s “Why We Talk to Ourselves” is too esoteric to truly hook the reader. Paul Di Filippo’s “Candles in a Chianti Bottle…” is overwritten and ends without any satisfying resolution. And Carol Emschwiller’s “Bountiful City” though well written, is anti-climactic.
I wanted Why New Yorkers Smoke to upset my reality. I wanted it to take all the tiny fears city-dwellers walk around with all day long and blow them out of proportion. I wanted to see the mundane made extraordinary. And though a handful of the contributors managed to pull it off, most just offered me the same 9/11 re-hash I’ve been listening to for ten years.
Why New Yorkers Smoke boils the entire city experience down to a single, tragic event. But New York is not a one-note town. 9/11 does not define the City, its residents, or their personal fears, and I wish that was reflected in this collection.
It’s 2013 and the Big Apple has finally rotted to the core. Besieged by mass unemployment, race riots, declining property values, and a thriving criminal underground, New York City is no longer the land of opportunity. The only jobs that offer any kind of security are illegal, and the crime lords have new immigrants and recent college graduates lined up around the corner looking to get in on the action. Luckily, Renny got in on the ground floor. A fashion photographer by day and drug dealer by night, Renny moves contraband through the underground party circuit using a network of taxi cabs as his cover. But little does he know Officer Santiago of the NYPD, working undercover as a cab driver, is hot on Renny’s tail. But Santiago isn’t interested in a little fish like Renny. He’s looking to bust Renny’s boss, Reza, before his criminal enterprise takes over the entire City.
Though the blurb on the cover promises “a mile a minute, kick-ass blast of tech noir,” that isn’t what first time novelist Adam Dunn delivers in Rivers of Gold. While he’s got the noir part down, Dunn still has a lot to learn about pacing and character development.
The first two-thirds of the novel flow like molasses. Full of unnecessary back story, and multiple information dumps that take the form of extended monologues that sound completely unnatural coming from the mouths of dope heads and police officers, Dunn saves all the high-octane action for the final third of Rivers of Gold. Unfortunately, all the tension he builds in the last few chapters of the book only lead to an average pay off.
Neither of the two main characters are strong enough to carry a novel. They reminded me of the cookie cutter characters present in most post-Jerry Orbach episodes of “Law & Order”. Renny is a dealer who thinks he’s hot shit but isn’t half as smart or cunning as he believes himself to be, and Santiago is a gruff but fair cop whose entire goal in life is to make detective. Neither of them are fleshed out any fuller than that, and because of it (cue broken record), I couldn’t bring myself to care about what happened to either of them.
Dunn is also very self-conscious in his writing. Rivers of Gold is full of sentences such as this one found on page 107, “His epiphany came in a climactic expectoration of enlightenment that nearly asphyxiated his cokehead consort.” As you can see, Dunn is so busy showcasing his ability to employ fifty cent words and alliteration he fails to deliver any actual meaning. Rivers of Gold is overrun by sentences like this.
Though I think Dunn might have been better off leaving Rivers of Gold in the proverbial trunk, there were aspects of the narrative that I found engaging. Though Renny himself is a flat character, Dunn imbued him with a very distinctive voice that was always interesting to read. I also noticed that the pace and overall tone of individual scenes improved the more characters Dunn introduced into them. Obviously, there’s something there. With a little more time and practice, Dunn probably could write the kind of pulsing narrative Rivers of Gold wanted, but failed, to be.
The verdict: Leave Rivers of Gold on the shelf; check in with Adam Dunn when his second or third novel comes out.