Imaginative and unpredictable: Keith Rosson’s Smoke City

This book is mad. And I mean that in the best way. I don’t think I’ve read anything this imaginative or unpredictable in a long time. Smoke City has three interweaving narratives. Fistly, we have the story of Mike Vale, a self-destructive, alcoholic, washed-up artist. Secondly, we have Marvin Deitz, an unassuming record shop owner, who’s trying to convince his therapist he only has one week left to live. Finally, we have the mysterious spectres (smokes) who are appearing all over the country – silent, insubstantial, vaguely ominous. By the way, Marvin is also the reincarnation of Geoffroy, the man responsible for the death of Joan of Arc. The book traverses the 15th and 21st century, as we learn about Geoffroy’s experiences of executing and torturing: “The prisoners themselves became interchangeable. Bodies were interchangeable. There was little to differentiate one man from the next; such was the raw honesty of the flesh.”

Smoke City Keith Rosson

I spent much of the first part of the novel wondering how on earth all of these rather disparate storylines would weave together. Even though I was unsure of where the story was heading, I felt in safe hands, as Keith Rosson’s writing is just fantastic. It’s not every author who can cover the topics of death, torture, and art, and do so in a way that’s lyrical and vivid. His descriptions of the troubled lives of Mike, Marvin, and Marvin’s previous life, Geoffroy, are raw, brutal, and honest. In these two (two and a half?) characters, we have some of the least appealing protagonists I have perhaps come across. A reincarnated torturer and executioner. An artist whose reliance on alcohol has lead him to betray himself and those closest to him. And yet Rosson’s brilliance is in getting the reader to empathise with these characters, even cheer them on their way.

When those storylines finally weave together, it’s eminently satisfying. Everything finally makes sense. Of course this book is about a failed artist, ghosts, and a reincarnated executioner. What else would I want to read about?

Favourite quotation: “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. And yet none of that mattered when I stepped onto the fourth floor. There, I raged against death, I leaned snarling against it.”

Keith Rosson, Smoke City (Meerkat Press, 2018)

I received a free advance copy of this book via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.