Smoke City by Keith Rosson

Review published on November 30, 2017.

Marvin Deitz is struggling: his landlord is trying to evict him from his record shop; his therapist is concerned about his sanity and his heart is being broken by the suffering he sees on the children’s oncology ward where he volunteers for four hours a week. If all of that wasn’t enough, he knows that he won’t live beyond his imminent fifty-seventh birthday. He knows this for a certainty because he is the reincarnation of the French executioner who lit Joan of Arc’s pyre in 1431 and, for over six hundred years, he has lived countless other lives, many of which were very short but none has ever lasted beyond fifty seven, the age he was when he lit the fire. Then a chance viewing of a woman on a Los Angeles chat show, claiming to be a reincarnation of Joan, fills him with hope that he will finally have an opportunity to make reparation, to rid himself of the guilt he has lived with for more than six hundred years. He just has to go and track her down so he immediately sets off to hitch a lift to Los Angeles. Within minutes of sticking his thumb up he is picked up by Mike Vale, a previously successful but now alcoholic, non-productive artist who is fighting his own demons and is on his way to the city for his ex-wife’s funeral. Along the way they give a lift to Casper, a young man who is also desperate to get to the city because he wants to make a show about the “smokes”, ghostly apparitions which have been appearing throughout Southern California and New Mexico. Who are they? Why have they suddenly started to appear? What are they looking for?

Keith Rosson has created three flawed but memorable characters in this compelling novel – even his more minor characters felt fully-formed and convincing. The story switches from the present day to past events, from the first to third person; it combines history with magical realism and the paranormal; it is full humour often deliciously dark, reflections on the meaning of life, of the search for forgiveness and redemption, of political satire – and much, much more. There are so many genre-defying elements to the story that when I first started reading I wondered how it could possibly be translated into a convincing whole but, in a quite brilliantly inventive way, the author has managed to do just that.

From the powerful opening introduction to the final sentence I felt totally engaged, with both the storyline and with the characters, so much so that I felt a real sense of loss when I had to leave them behind as I turned the final page. The author’s writing is so evocative that not only did I feel a strong sense that I was accompanying these characters on their journey, but I also felt that I could see the countryside they were travelling through and felt caught up in their experiences of the ethereal and compelling “smokes”. There was never a moment when I didn’t believe in the developing story and I think this is a reflection of the author’s skill in creating such multi-layered characters who seem to leap off the page to make themselves known. I loved the way in which he explored their developing friendship as they travelled towards their respective “destinations”, and how he made even their most deviant behaviour understandable and worthy of empathy. I enjoyed the way in which he creatively wove historical events into the story, his use of allegory and I appreciated the hint of the Jungian concept of a collective unconscious, of patterns repeating themselves down the generations and an ongoing search for resolution. The passages where he described methods of torture in 14th century Europe made for very disturbing reading, not only because they captured the degrading nature of man’s inhumanity to man in such a powerfully visceral way, but because they served as a reminder that men are still capable of similar outrages.

Keith Rosson tackles so many themes in this book that it feels impossible to do justice to all of them but some of the major ones focus on the nature of guilt, shame, despair, forgiveness, absolution, redemption, addiction, the search for salvation, our inter-dependence as human beings and a need to make the most of the life we lead. At times, there is an almost Kafkaesque nature to the writing which makes the storytelling not only convincing in our increasingly complex world but, for this reader, even more compelling. There is so much in the story that is thought-provoking, full of ironic observations and which challenges corruption and complacency. Yet, ultimately, this felt like a story about hope, about love and about the essential decency of people.
This was a hugely satisfying, cohesive and enjoyable personal read and it would make an ideal choice for reading groups, not only because of the varied themes, but also because the literary quality of Keith Rosson’s writing is truly remarkable and, at times, quite breathtakingly beautiful. This is his second published novel (although he has written lots of short stories) and I find myself hoping that his third won’t be too long in coming! A final point, but one which added to my enjoyment because it somehow set the scene for the “quirky” nature of this story, I must mention the author’s own design for the book jacket – it feels perfect!

I cannot praise this book highly enough but I hope that what I have written will convince you to buy yourself a copy and discover for yourself what a remarkable writer Keith Rosson is and what a unique, highly imaginative voice he has as a storyteller.

Linda Hepworth 5/5

Smoke City by Keith Rosson
Meerkat Press 9781946154163 hbk Jan 2018

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