by Brian Birnbaum
Dead Rabbits Books, Sept 2019
416 pages, $18.99
Late in Brian Birnbaum’s excellent debut, Emerald City, a young man signs to his deaf mother, “I’m trying to tell you that I’m unhappy” (378). Without so much as a pause, the mother signs back, “No one is happy. That’s life” (378). To a certain extent, this exchange sums up the novel. On another level, however, it’s just the beginning, for even though most of the multitude of interconnected characters in this sprawling novel are dissatisfied with life, the novel contains so much heart that it isn’t dragged down by their troubles.
The Emerald City of the title is Seattle, where all of the various characters have ended up. We have the Behrenreichs, a family that runs an interpreting service for the deaf. Mr. Behrenreich is so consumed with helping his son, Benison, make the Myriadal College basketball team, full-ride and all, that he bribes the school’s athletic director, a move that pales in comparison to some of his other illegal activities. Then, there is Julia Paolantonio, her parents, and her grandfather Johnny Raciti, a noted mobster. As a college student who has recently been shunted from her parents’ house to Raciti’s, on account of her father’s descent into drug addiction, she is both a pawn and a willing participant in nefarious dealings. Finally, we have Peter Fosch and his dysfunctional family. At the novel’s opening, he is a disinterested college student who spends more time as a drug courier than he does on his studies. If this cast of characters seems confusing, rest assured that Birnbaum knows what he’s doing. He includes readers in each story at key moments—including flashbacks that range over the previous thirty years—with so much confidence and ease that readers are swept along in the machinations of these characters, as well as those of various lesser players.
The plot revolves around a variety of illegal activities: beginning with Mr. Behrenreich’s bribe, continuing to include Peter’s various drug-related dealings—which also bring him in contact with Julia’s grandfather—and, ultimately, centering on the Behrenreich Interpreting Services’ FCC violations. Readers should be prepared to take notes, as I did, which helps illuminate the connections between the characters. At a certain point, all of the story lines coalesce like clockwork, the arrows I’d drawn between characters falling into place. Birnbaum entangles these characters without creating any unnecessary or unsolvable knots. It may take a while to see how some of the characters are connected, but rest assured, they are all interrelated in the end. Getting to that end is one of the two biggest pleasures in reading Emerald City.
The other great pleasure, perhaps even more than the intricate plot, is Birnbaum’s writing. The book is filled with highlight-worthy passages, especially regarding the characters’ relationships with the city. Early in the novel, for instance, the narrator notes Benison’s adolescent connection to “the ‘burbs”:
Benison was from the ‘burbs, which bred man-children. The type that never wanted, yet were always wanting. The type that sat sulky in the back of rented cars when forced into a family vacation, headphones strapped tight, slipping into schizoid fantasies of fretting a Fender like John Frusciante, or spitting like Eminem, fifty grand a night to kill it for fifty grand in the stands. The type that removed his shirt when running his hilly neighborhood, showing off Adonis’s abdomen, gleaming and glabrous. Then the shame when the neighbors did look (15).
As always, Birnbaum’s description isn’t just setting a scene but integrally tied to the consciousness of the character involved. Likewise, Julia’s wanderings through Seattle require her to run
the gauntlet of eclectic tourists and less-varied locals. The latter grew, per capita, as she wound away from the water—dreadlocks, frosted spikes, loud band shirts. Lots of Zoo York. Metal. Epidermal impalement. Pungency. Skates and their dense soughing. This was what normal looked like, Julia told herself—except for where normal looked.
Their heads like camera dollies, tracking her with clinical precision as they passed (149).
Julia’s insecurities and quest for stability all come across in the above, as well as Birnbaum’s keen eye for the city in all of its varied demographics.
In a flashback to Julia’s upbringing, the narrator displays another strength in the writing: the dialogue. Whether depicting the jostling that goes on among basketball players and coaches, or the more intimate moments between Julia and Peter or Benison and a past love interest, Birnbaum displays the same wit that goes into the descriptions. For instance, Julia and her Berkeley professor father reflect on an argument with her mother about a friend of Julia’s with the following exchange:
“Okay, honey? That’s enough snark for the evening,” he said, retrieving his pipe from the end table’s drawer. He loaded and lit. Tobacco’s fug could almost fill her spiritual with the scent of garlic crackling in olive oil, the vinegared tomatoes and capers on flatbread, this was home.
“Give her a break. Her home life isn’t exactly pleasant.”
“Her dad makes good money,” he shrugged.
“Here we go. The currency of happiness in our society. Regale me, again, in the metric?”
“I didn’t write the book.”
“Actually, you did. It’s right behind you.” (162)
Birnbaum balances the teen’s caustic attitude and her inevitable child-of-an-academic precociousness with the blasé, soothing tone of her father, no more oppressive than his pipe’s “fug.”
Birnbaum’s work wears its influences on its sleeve, or in its pages. An epigraph from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions prepares readers for a sprawling reading experience. Later references to David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen reinforce this notion. Julia and her high school friends create a website Pussy Vitale, the name a combination of in-your-face feminism and legendary college basketball commentator Dick Vitale. The site includes a blog called “David Foster’s Hospice,” a page of found art named “Betch Banksy,” and the poetry forum, “Jonathan Stanzen.” Combined, these references reinforce Birnbaum’s ambition, his desire to write a sweeping “systems novel,” as its often called. Systems novels had their heyday in the postmodernism of the 1970s, according to many critics, but Birnbaum resuscitates the genre by moving it west, to Seattle, whose culture and demographics he thoroughly dissects. His awareness and critique of contemporary social hierarchies and dynamics breathes new life into the strategy favored by the Gaddises, Barthes, and Delillos of the fiction stratum.
Ultimately, in keeping with the story’s emphasis on deaf culture, this is a book about communication. So many of these characters refuse to connect with those around them, are incapable of doing so, or attempt, unsuccessfully, to make such connections. Benison is unable to forge a bond with his teammates or his parents, Julia loses her father to drug addiction and is never comfortable around her scheming grandfather, and Peter’s home life, a wreck almost beyond comprehension, keeps him from successful dealing with the world outside his own drug-and-alcohol-addled state. All of these failures to connect speak to contemporary life.
Through Pussy Vitale and the near-constant texting and phone-checking that goes on, Birnbaum comments on a recent phenomenon: even as we have more ways to communicate than ever before, this communication too often remains shallow, incomplete, or dissatisfying. None of those descriptors, however, can be ascribed to this novel. Birnbaum’s work is the opposite, in fact. He provides a deep dive into a world that I was reluctant to leave when I closed the book. As a result, I look forward avidly to his next book. I’m confident that Birnbaum will successfully live up to the promise of this novel. He’s that good.