Smoke City by Keith Rosson
Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene
I’ll confess that going into the book I’m talking about today, I was somewhat of a skeptic, as I tend to be with all new-to-me authors. But it turns out my skepticism was misplaced and it only took me the amount of time it takes to read a single paragraph placed right at the beginning of the story:
“It happened in a wind-scoured canyon in a stretch of national forest, forty miles east of San Diego. Dusk laid its reds and golds against the canyon walls as the sun hung above the tree line. There was no grand sense of ceremony, no change in the surroundings–the thing simply appeared. An eye-blink’s worth of time. Dim, but recognizable enough: a wavering form in the shape of a man.”
You can learn a lot about the book you’re reading from the story opener, the hook, so to speak. In this case, there are volumes to be intuited, firstly that this guy can write his ass off. The sentence structure is fucking near perfect; the cadence serves to set a snappy pace that threads its way through the novel from beginning to end; the language is sharp and concise without being overtly abrupt. But the thing that really stands out is Keith Rosson’s eloquence and his ability to paint a set. He has an eye for detail and a knack, not so much for oration, as depiction. He’s mastered the art of showing you the scene and you find yourself more than once marveling at his ability to sever the ties of your imagination and set it free.
Upon reading that first short page, you get the impression that what you’re reading is a ghost story of some sort, and you’ll be partially right in that assumption. The question is, which wraiths is it really about? Is it the enigmatic “smokes” that have begun to appear randomly and seemingly without rhyme or reason on the west coast, or the specters of the past that haunt the two main characters and provide the focal point for the entire book? If you’ve followed my reviews in the past, you’ll know that I’m not going to give you the answer to that little trick question. Read the book and discover for yourself. But let me introduce you to those two main characters I just mentioned. First up, is Marvin Dietz, a man whose demons are his own actions, the atrocities he committed in a past life. Marvin is the reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner who laid torch to the pyre beneath Joan of Arc’s feet, a deed that has weighed on his heart and his conscience over the course of multiple lifetimes:
“But Joan. Every avenue circles back. Everything returns to the mysterious and martyred Joan of Orléans. The young peasant girl who for a brief heartbeat of time was believed to have felt God’s lips pressed to her ear.
What of Joan of Arc?
For all my grief and heartache and guilt, the truth is I only met her once, and that was the day I burned her alive.”
Next, we have Mike Vale, a washed up artist and self-destructive alcoholic on his way to Los Angeles from Portland, Oregon to attend his ex-wife’s funeral. Mike is a tragic figure really, at first seeming to be an amoral, one-dimensional son-of-a-bitch. But as the story progresses and Rosson reveals successive layers of nuance, history, and personality, you begin to see him for what he is: a lost soul, as hollow and rootless as the smokes that populate the story. The two men meet up when Martin, headed to LA for reasons of his own, ones that form the primary premise of the story, hitches a ride with Vale.
Told mostly through backstory, Smoke City is many things. If you tried to shoehorn it into one single genre, you’d have to cut off its toes and shave off its heels like an ugly stepsister, and even then it wouldn’t fit right. You could call it literary fiction, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The same could be said of magical realism, fantasy, horror; all are applicable. It’s an amalgamation of many different things that make up a whole new brand of neo-noir the likes of which you’ve never read. It’s a story full of stories, disparate threads that all come together into what, in the hands of a lesser author, could have been a tangled mess. But in Keith Rosson’s capable hands, it becomes a thing of magic, a story of unexpected destinies and uncertain futures. Relative newcomer that he is, the author demonstrates remarkable agility with the English language, using the written word in wonderfully unexpected ways and somehow making a narrative that dwells mostly in the past move toward the future at a steady clip.
There are many things to love about this book and many that help to shore it up and make it work. Rosson is a phenom when it comes to character building, using backstory masterfully to provide the flesh and blood, bones and hair of the various fucked up people in the story and make them breathe. You come to the end of it feeling not like you’ve read about Martin and Vale, but that you’ve known them. But the one thing I keep circling back to is his fucking breathtaking ability to spin a yarn. His love of the written word bleeds from every line of prose and man, let me tell you he held me enraptured from cover to cover. I keep coming back to that mesmerizing eloquence of his, and I think it’ll capture you too:
“I was intimately familiar with death and its equations. I had long been intimate with the stilled architecture of the corpse. The decay, the sugary-sweet stink of it all, the odor like a mixture of shit and rotten fruit. The primacy of rotted meat. The simple subtraction of animation pulled from a body, a face. Doing all I had done throughout the centuries, I knew death. I wanted it. I sought it, courted it.”
Death is, of necessity, a large and quite important focus of the narrative, and you’ll see why when you read it. But intermingled with that are themes of love, loss, sorrow, hope, and maybe even some redemption. It turns out that art, hope, and love are more intricately intertwined with one another than you might imagine, at least in the world of Smoke City, but so are identity and personal meaning. Marvin and Vale are akin to the titular smokes in that they seem to search for meaning and purpose as they move toward their separate goals. They are as enigmatic to themselves as are the strange wraiths that have invaded their world.
I’m always happy when I discover a great new author, and even happier when I discover they’re a local. It makes them much easier to stalk, and it gives me one more reason–not that I needed one–to love Stumptown. Portland is an eclectic city of artists, authors, musicians, and dreamers and Keith Rosson is among the best of them. Smoke City made of him a favorite author and one whose work will be a blind buy from here on out. Meerkat Press has been publishing some stunning works of fiction lately, upping their game with each new release and nothing is truer of this one than that it’s mesmerizing, breath-taking, heartbreaking, and hope-inducing, and if you haven’t read it yet, you need to unfuck that.
About Keith Rosson:
Keith Rosson is the author of the novels The Mercy of the Tide and Smoke City, and his short fiction has appeared in Cream City Review, PANK, December, The Nervous Breakdown, and more. He’s been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a finalist for the Birdwhistle Prize for Short Fiction. He’s also an illustrator and graphic designer, with clients that include Green Day, Against Me, the Goo Goo Dolls, and others. A fierce advocate of public libraries and non-ironic adulation of the cassette tape, he can be found at keithrosson.com.