It’s funny how things come together sometimes, isn’t it? I was keeping an eye out for Bennett’s newest book when I discovered his sophomore book, a noir-magical realism kind of thing. I’d also been reading Lost New York and browsing my way through NYC Public Library’s online photo collection, enjoying the feel of times gone past in the big city. Then on Facebook, someone posted a link of new Youtube video, speed-corrected and sound-added to footage from a 1911 Swedish documentary in NYC:
When I picked up The Company Man, I was more than primed to imagine Bennett’s story set in the 1919, in an alternate timeline where the city Evesden, in Washington state, becomes one of the greatest cities in America through the miraculous inventions of the McNaughton Corporation.
Hayes is one of the security men of the great corporation, who uses a kind of patterning sixth sense to troubleshoot issues for the company. Unfortunately, Hayes has a bit of a drinking problem. And an opium pipe problem. The last job he did ended up in a publicity disaster, so his only way back into good graces is to take on a job looking for union men within the company, indirectly supervised and aided by Samantha. Garvey is a NYC Evesden detective who cares too much as he tries to solve various murders. There’s been a steady increase in the murder rate, which takes a serious jump when eleven people are found dead in a trolley car.
In many ways, it feels similar to The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Both take a city setting that feels almost familiar, then give it fantastic elements that allow the authors to explore different ideas in the setting of progress. In Bennett’s case, ideas about economics, and in Whitehead’s, ideas about race. It also feels a little similar to A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, although far more interesting. Bennett’s writing is evocative, and his description of the city makes it come alive, albeit in a somewhat dismal way. I can see the inkling of the writer who would go on to create the Divine Cities trilogy I loved so much.
“Deep in the twisting bowels of Dockland the city did not sleep. As the distant spotlights flickered on the markets stirred and came to life, gathering in dimly lit rooms and doorways and alley entrances. Smoke tumbled across the tent covers and turned the voices of the barkers and the tradesmen into coarse growls, barely human over the din and clatter of trade… Hayes moved among them all like a ghost, weaving through the weak points of the crowds. He was riding a mean drunk and he had forgotten his coat somewhere and his scarf was stuffed down the front of his shirt, which was only half-buttoned. He tried to keep his senses about him.”
As always, I enjoy Bennett’s writing, the description and the flow. I think it’s less polished than the Divine Cities, but the evocative imagery is there.
The balance between human characters, the McNaughton Corp as a character and the city as a character is perhaps somewhat off, particularly as it is hard to identify with a corporation or a city. Perhaps the largest issue is pacing. Like American Elsewhere, this has a slow build, almost a prequel to the meat of the story that introduces characters and city. The trolley murders, mentioned on the jacket as if they are the driver of the story, don’t happen until a hundred pages in, give or take. I think he builds the story somewhat slowly, but well.
Unfortunately, the story goes a bit off the rails at the end. But maybe it doesn’t; according to other reviews, “it picked up a lot.” Oh sure, it does do that. I likely would have forgiven it, but Bennett becomes extremely heavy-handed with the moralizing in a bit of eye-rolling dialogue. In many ways, I think the structure of the book feels similar to American Elsewhere, with a completely different setting (modern southwest versus 1920s steampunk), so for those who had patience with that would likely enjoy this. On the whole, though, I’d say it’s impressive for a sophomore book.