23 November 2022

The Wine-Dark Sea

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big fan of Don Winslow’s.  The Force was one of my best books of 2017, if not the best, and his Border trilogy, Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border, is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

So let me tell you about City on Fire, which came out this past year.  It’s about a gang war in Providence, Rhode Island, in the latter half of the 1980’s.  It’s very specific to the time and place, and to the culture and the speech patterns of Providence, and to the inner lives of its Irish and Italian mob guys.  It’s also unapologetically modeled on the Trojan War. 

This creates a doubling effect, the dynamic between characters who imagine they can have some say in how they live their lives, and the inexorability of the Fates who pursue them.  Danny Ryan is Aeneas, the Murphy boys are Hector and Paris; the Moretti brothers are Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Liam Murphy steals Paulie Moretti’s girl.  The heat is on.  Of course, it’s all about turf, and the Irish losing ground, so at bottom it’s business, but it’s just as much about losing face, everybody on about dick size.

It’s a cool conceit, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus.  Or closer in genre, Sharky’s Machine reimagining the legend of Orpheus.  City on Fire takes the equivalencies very literally, though.  Aeneas’ mother is the goddess Aphrodite, and she rescues him from death in battle.  Winslow wondered aloud in an interview how you could pull this off without resorting to cornball trickery, but he stage-manages it convincingly.  The thing I miss, though, in City of Fire, are the improvisational riffs.  You’re too tied down to the score.  There aren’t any breakaway solos.

In other words, the same Fates that hem in Danny Ryan squeeze a lot of the air out of the story.  Achilles kills Hector, and drags his body behind his chariot.  Well, in this case, Pat Murphy gets hooked on the oilpan after a hit-and-run, and dragged a couple of blocks under a stolen Caddy.  It’s not that I wasn’t convinced, or even that I didn’t think it was a funny bit, by itself, but in honesty, I found it contrived.  

The things I liked the best in City of Fire were the local bits, the Easter eggs.  There’s a scene where somebody brings a guy in the hospital a coffee cabinet.  This is strictly Rhode Island.  Back in the day, a milk shake in New England meant syrup and milk, and that was it, at the soda fountain.  If you wanted ice cream in it, you got a frappe.  Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, you called it a cabinet, and according to the food writer Aimee Tucker, it’s because that’s where the blender was kept. 

Winslow says he’s going to quit writing fiction, and concentrate on politics.  He wants to humiliate Trump, and grind his face in the dirt – an ambition I can sympathize with - but I wish he didn’t feel the choice had to be so absolute.  Here’s hoping he can accomplish the one, and get back to the other.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Winslow last summer and got an autographed copy of City on Fire. It's terrific, of course, and inspired me to re-read The Iliad, which I haven't picked up since grad school. I've considered re-reading The Aeneid, too, but don't have a copy of that at hand.

    David, rest easy. During the course of his interview/talk, Winslow assured us that the next two books in the Providence trilogy are already complete and with his publisher. His loathing and disdain for Trump and the GOP drove him to take an active part in helping the Democrats' messaging, which he feels is a weakness they need to overcome.

    I agree, but I wish there were more books to anticipate. I've read nearly everything Winslow has written, going back to the Neal Carey books, and there are only a couple I can't find anywhere. California Fire & Life and The Dawn Patrol are still two of my favorite crime novels, and I agree with you on the Border trilogy. The research for those books and The Force (Winslow discussed how he did that, too, in his interview) was staggering.


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