City of Margins, by William Boyle – book review

City of Margins is impossible to assess. There are two playlists for the novel on Spotify, one by author William Boyle himself. You can follow on a maps app the long, evocative walk that two of the main characters take through Brooklyn. All of this takes place largely in plain sight. But if you were to listen to the playlists, and do that walk through Brooklyn, you would be no closer to understanding the lives of the main characters. To do that, to get inside their souls and into their close community, you do need the book. It’s a book of paradoxes, too: the back cover offers revenge, lost souls and general melancholy and yet the book involves people acting on impulse, taking joyful risks and throwing off some of the claustrophobic culture of Italian-American southern Brooklyn: there is spontaneity and an abandoning of role expectations, but amid the attempts at renewal, minor infractions and major crimes there is one golden rule: you do not mess with Sister Bernadette.

Cover of City of Margins by William Boyle

If all that sounds a bit complex, consuming the story is anything but. There are seven major characters: an ex-cop, a widow, a high school teacher, a college drop out, a widow, a grieving mother, a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Chapters alternate to place each character centre stage. These people know each other, or are aware of each other, or have something in common. As each of them follows their dreams, suppresses their nightmares, tries to forge a new path or just tries to get through the day, a series of complicated coincidences pulls them towards each other. It’s a really simple but effective structure. Multiple points of view make this a kind of ensemble piece, and that provides a real sense of the city. There’s an ambiguity that is unsettling but which also makes us lean in: I never really understand whether Boyle disapproves or is sympathetic towards his characters. Except Nick, the hopeless wannabe film screenwriter. Boyle really hates Nick. Poor Nick. But what an idiot, though. In contrast, Disgraced Dom Parascandolo is someone who, no matter how dislikable, gets to move towards redemption. 

It seemed to me that there were three distinct phases to the novel. At first, Boyle is setting a scene that is entirely authentic if not already well-trod. The ex-cop who had a bit of mob work on the side. The dreamer with the big idea. Boyle is building up a sense of place here. Then he unleashes some firm plot twists. The characters begin to break free of their stereotypes. We begin to reappraise them. Finally, anything is possible. In among the body count and the acceptance of defeat, there’s some black humour and a smattering of the surreal. A bit of The Gift by the Velvet Underground, mixed with our old friend Antti Tuomainen.

City of Margins is about revenge and retribution, it says: stories as old as humanity. But it feels different, fresh even. I want to see the bright lights tonight.

You can get City of Margins here (affiliate link). 

Thanks to No Exit Press for the review copy.

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