Thursday, March 31, 2011
Author: Robert Paul Weston
Secrets and Shadows was supposed to be this week's review, but some rival fan got to the library's new books shelf before me, so you have to wait another week. A fellow blogger recommended Dust City as a substitute, and I'm very glad for that. The book had been on my radar, but low on the priority list, because I wasn't in the mood for Yet Another Reinterpretation Of Red Riding Hood. Well, that's not what we've got here. What we've got is a story that picks up where that old folktale ends off, and casts the fairy tales of our youth into a dark, noirish setting which is grimy, dirty, and -- yes, you saw it coming -- grim.
The eponymous city gets it's name from the booming synthetic fairy dust industry that sprung up years ago after the real fairies vanished. Our hero is Henry Whelp, bipedal wolf and teenage miscreant. His mom died when he was very young, and his dad is in prison for killing some girl and her grandma back when Henry was a kid. At the outset, Henry resides in St. Remus Home For Wayward Youths, a juvenile detention center. He has exactly two friends in the place: his bunkmate Jack, and the psychologist Doc. For all Henry knows, his father wants nothing to do with him, so it comes as a great surprise when Jack burglarizes Doc's office and finds a file folder full of letters dad had sent to Henry. Jack breaks out of St. Remus with the folder, and Henry makes his own escape soon after, when Doc is found dead in an apparent suicide. After failing to track down Jack, Henry visits dad in prison, where dad claims that the fairies are still around. The mobster Skinner, whom dad used to work for, does a thriving business in potent and illegal blends of fairy dust, and dad is convinced that it's the real deal, produced by captive fairies. Henry doesn't really believe it, but blood being thicker than water, he infiltrates Skinner's operation hoping to learn the truth.
One of the signs of a good writer is the ability to break rules and get away with it. Dust City begins with Weston doing something writers are routinely advised never to do: Spend several pages on a scene-setting introductory monologue. And it works, because it's really just exposition. It's the core of what drives Henry throughout the novel -- how the world used to be a great place, and now it isn't. Which, when you think about it, is exactly the trouble we have with fairy tales today.
Fairy tales occupy a curious place in the public consciousness. As children, we love them. They teach us that life is ultimately fair, that things will work out for decent people, that happiness is always within reach somehow. They represent a mindset that is always hopeful and always convinced that things will be alright in the end. For this same reason, as we grow older, these stories begin to disgust us with their simplistic worldview and naive morals. And so we reinterpret them as not the magical tales of our youth, but stories about the real world all around us, full of injustice and suffering. Bleak stories for people who have learned that the world isn't as simple or perfect as we'd like.
Dust City is, in effect, a journey through harsh reality, seeking the magic that we dreamed of in our youth. Along his path, Henry meets a collection of characters both new and drawn from the old stories. The characters are a mixed bag. Some are memorable, others are mired in cliche. For example, Snow White shows up as a badass cop with perhaps a few screws loose. She's a pretty good as that kind of character, but the fact that she's Snow White rarely comes up and isn't relevant to much of anything. The original characters fare a bit better. Henry makes a decent, rootable protagonist. Roy, a fellow lupine miscreant, is probably the most complex figure in the book. A bully who aspires to organized crime, Roy nevertheless has a kind of nobility about him. He's a bad guy, but he's not morally bankrupt, as most of the villains are. He talks about how wolves have to stick together and do what it takes to survive, and you don't get the sense that it's just a cheap excuse. The city forces him to be a bad guy.
Indeed, the city itself is the major antagonist in this book. Heartless and malevolent, it breaks dreams, destroys lives, and leaves us to pick through the leftovers. The detritus is all around: in the dust-junkies seeking a moment's solace in oblivion, in the flophouse thugs who will kill you for any reason or none. Even Eden, the good part of town, is materialistic and commercialized -- a pale imitation of the old days where real magic reigned.
It's a great stage for the story to play out on. But I must say, all things considered, the story isn't so hot. Mind you, its not-hotness is very well finessed. It's kind of like Wolfbreed in that it's well-executed enough that you don't realize the problems until you're done. A large part of the beginning is just the tour of St. Remus, and an even bigger chunk of the middle is the tour of the city's underworld. In fact, more or less the entire book is a tour. It's a travelogue of the grim urban landscape, with Henry as our intrepid guide. He encounters one horror after another, in roughly ascending order of vileness, until we've hit them all. The landscapes are so vivid, and the sense of despair so real, that we don't really notice how little is really happening in terms of Henry's goals. Unfortunately, when it does come time for the book to pay the metaphorical piper, it's not pretty. When we hit the end of the ride and the author has nothing left to show us, he resorts to an incredibly blatant deus ex machina that wraps everything up neatly. It's not quite happily ever after, but it's a new, hopeful world after 300 or so pages of despair and decay. At which point, the spell is broken and we see how thin the book was.
So, a mixed report. Dust City is compelling yet shallow, alternately inventive and cliche, and a wild roller coaster ride that sputters at the end. All in all, though, it's still a pretty good ride. I feel my time was well spent.