Urbantasm Book One: The Dying City by Connor Coyne
Review by Robert R. Thomas
Connor Coyne’s Urbantasm is the most original take on Flint I have read to date. Set in the fictional Rust Belt city of Akawe, Michigan, “an hour’s drive north of Detroit,” Coyne’s allegorical tale is a serial novel of four volumes the author says has taken 22 years to create.
Book One: The Dying City will be published in September. The jacket of my pre-publication copy describes Urbantasm as “a magical teen noir serial novel inspired by the author’s experience growing up in and around Flint, Michigan.”
As a Flint tribal elder whose teen years are buried in 60 years of dusty, shifting memories, “a magical teen noir serial novel” would not be on my usual readerly radar, especially one set in a dying city. But being a book reviewer brings me books which surprise me. Coyne’s first volume of his serial novel surprised me.
It is 1993 in Akawe. The novel’s narrator is 13-year-old John Bridge. He and his young tribe believe that Akawe is “the center of the universe. It’s where we are.” He describes his tribe: “Our posturing was so generic that it was tough to tell us apart.” All posturing aside, the characters nevertheless come alive. Coyne deftly defines the characters via rhythmic runs of dialogue augmented by telling descriptive details.
Blues, ghosts, a tribe of damaged goods
An essential element in Book One is a young teen’s fears of the vagaries of life and death. John Bridge describes his tribe as “all damaged goods” for whom “each morning began with a mystery that only we could solve.”
The blues—the state of mind, not the musical genre—and a pair of magical blue-bottle sunglasses that John steals from a homeless person infuse the novel with noir magic dust that includes for Bridge apparitions of blue ghosts and a mysterious man with a knife.
“I knew that the things around me had turned blue,” Bridge says. “I knew that I was seeing the world in a new way. Seeing old things made new again, so new that they glowed blue. The blues told me that life is in motion. Time is travel. Loss is learning. It all felt like so much—this blue shivering—and I felt so dizzy that I had to lie down.”
For him and his crew, a gothic gloom consisting of nothing-remains-the-same permeates their daily scene. But the tribe keeps on keeping on. It may be a jungle out there, but it’s their jungle and it is what they are trying to understand. The journey is the plot which challenges their understanding of life’s mysterious ways and means in the homes, schools and neighborhoods of Akawe.
Frighteningly formidable young lives
The circumstances of 1993 Akawe were far more disturbing than mine when I was 13 in and around Akawe, but the uncertainties of life and death were as frighteningly formidable. Those blues I have never forgotten.
“Akawe did make national news that summer when a man threw his brother’s severed head into a reflecting pool right as the opening night of Madame Butterfly was letting out next door,” Bridge reports. “But over all, our poorness, our violence, our confusion wasn’t high on anyone’s list of priorities. America was watching TV and discovering a brave new world of denim and flannel and bomber jackets and gypsy tops. Most kids I knew wanted to be rapping Angelinos or dirty Seattlites. They worshipped the sun and the rain, respectively. That was 1993.
“We forget the little things. The bulbous cars, the posturing raps, the global calm or ‘calm,’ but these little things, moment by moment—that’s what made it what it was. 1993 is still too close, too recent, for me to really say that I understand it. Maybe in a few years, in the new millenium, I’ll be able to tie these strands together and hang some meaning on them. But right now I still don’t know what they are all about.”
What they are all about is the story Bridge narrates.
Wrestling with God
Book One of Urbantasm begins with this sentence: “I have to become the Antichrist.” Two brief paragraphs follow describing the narrator’s depressing urban setting as he ponders how God had abandoned a character named Drake, as well as the narrator himself and his tribe.The narrator ends page one with: “If I wanted to save my friends, I would have to murder God.”
“This is mostly my story,” the narrator continues, “but I’m gonna start out by telling you about what happened to Drake. Just so you know—just so you can see right off the bat—what a bastard God could be and why a lot of us had it out for him.”
His story of what happened to Drake is a Rust Belt phantasm of shock and awe which finds five teens flying off the roof of an abandoned hospital and nose-diving into the parking lot below, apparently while under the influence of the latest unknown street drug O-Sugar. Four die, but Drake survives as a broken being, physically and spiritually. He had supplied the new drug to his friends for their communal test flight off the roof.
“But like I said,” Bridge continues, “this story doesn’t really start with the fall of Drake and his friends. It’s about me and my friends, and it begins with me standing on the South Street viaduct on the day before I started junior high.”
He is waiting for his friend Adam who has a plan for how they will become players in the junior high scene they are about to enter. He also has a dark secret, but he is not alone in his tribe when it comes to dark secrets.
Fluid prose propels the story
While I appreciate the universal chords in Urbantasm, it is the delivery, the writing style, that engaged me. The writing propels this story. So do the characters as they reveal themselves through the writing. Coyne’s fluid prose is the perfect vehicle to carry an epic allegory. The wordsmith in me particularly enjoyed the stylistic change-ups he would throw.
Two favorite examples are rolling runs of straight dialogue delineating authentic characters and the word play of a single kaleidoscopic sentence describing the smells of the American ghetto that rolls along on a crest of commas for an entire page. Both read like jazz to me, so it came as no surprise to learn of John’s interest in jazz, an affection he picked up from his factory-worker father.
The plot is secondary to the characters who bring the plot to life, but it is not inconsequential. Human concerns regarding inscrutabilities like life and death can hardly be considered inconsequential.
Theological dilemmas slip in
As a reformed philosopher and theologian, I particularly enjoyed Coyne’s exposition of religious dilemmas expressed by John and his Akawe crew.
“I had been raised Catholic,” states John, “though my mother had been brought up in an evangelical church and had converted for my father…. To be honest, I suspected that my mother didn’t buy Christianity in any of its costumes. Maybe religious skepticism was genetic, or maybe I’d caught it when I saw her rolling her eyes equally at the prayers for the unborn at each mass and at my Grandfather Richter’s Biblical rants against welfare and food stamps: ‘It isn’t charity if it’s compulsory!’”
A spirited school lunch room dialogue between several characters including John mirrored my own religious debates at that age. Does God exist? If so, is he good or evil? Is there a heaven or a hell? The language in this scene sizzles with the visceral repartee of smart-mouthed teenage call and response.
“Why we gotta argue about this?” Quanla asked. “We always fight about it. We never get anywhere.”
“Because there’s people different from you, Quanla, and they ain’t all bad,” was Selby’s retort.
“Like me,” John said. “I don’t even believe in God.”
Quanla’s rebuttal begins low and slow, but then it picks up speed in sharp, short, staccato bursts like a preacher getting up to speed. When she finishes, short of breath, John replies, “Jesus, Quanla.” To which she replies quietly, “That’s right, John. Jesus. That’s exactly right.”
A teen tribe’s search for meaning
The quest of this tribe’s journey is a search for meaning. Religion is but one of their paths of inquiry.
While walking with John, Selby Demnescu reads him a poem she has written titled “Meaning.” She ends the reading by spontaneously adding another ending: “And the beauty is the truth, and truth is the beauty, and when I find truth and beauty, then I will tell thee!”
She further comments: “So I don’t know. Does it matter what we say? What we do? What if we die? If we die does it matter? I know it sounds weird, but I think these things all the time. I think deep things.”
So did I at her age, and so do I now. While my circumstances were nowhere as dire in 1953 Akawe as Bridge’s Akawe of 1993, the concerns were every bit as confusing and scary for this young teen. What’s it all about? is a question I still ask at 74.
Long nights of being lost
The noir element of this tale has an enlightening side. During a long night of being lost walking through Akawe’s dark streets in the midst of a drug war between two gangs, John muses about the night.
“That night felt like the negative mirror image of a drug. Not a proliferation of sense but its reduction to essentials. Night subtracts the number of colors, divides the volume of sounds, and what remains takes on a heightened importance. A secret energy, still in motion, fills the dark spaces separating things we are able to see and touch. Walking all those miles, all those blocks— feeling a dull pain in my feet and the sting of the air on my face—I felt sleepy and wide-awake at the same time. It was soothing and electrifying.”
Book One concludes with a question to John.
“Was it nice?” Lucy asked. “Being lost for a while? I mean, not having to go where someone else wanted you to? Not even having them know where you were?”
“It was perfect,” John replies. “But anyway, it’s over now.”
Well, not exactly. Book Two: The Empty Room will be published in May of 2019. Frankly, this old reader is looking forward to more Urbantasm now that I know the dying city is not dead.
About Connor Coyne:
Connor Coyne lives and works in Flint.
EVM board member and book reviewer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.