City of Margins by William Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a free advance copy of this for review.
Back in the ‘90s, Donnie Parascandolo was a disgraced ex-cooooooppppppp….
And now I offer my sincere apologies to Bojack Horseman, Grouplove, and William Boyle.
Starting over.... In a Brooklyn neighborhood during the ‘90s a group of people impact each other in various ways. Donnie was a dirty cop whose son committed suicide, and his wife Donna left him in the aftermath. As part of his grieving process Donnie once hit Mikey Baldini with a baseball bat for trying to hook up with the underage Antonina, and then later when Donnie went to collect a gambling debt from Mikey’s father, Donnie ended up killing the man. A few years after that Mikey has dropped out of college and lives with his clingy mother, Rosemarie, who is still grieving her husband. Donnie has been fired from the cops and works for the local mob guy. Ava is another neighborhood widow living with her alcoholic son Nick who works as a high school teacher but dreams of being a writer.
A couple of chance encounters bring a few of these people together, and the results are….not great for everyone.
As you can tell from that description there’s a lot going on in this book. Even though it’s not that long the characters and their backstories make for a dense story that explores how these people have already been connected, and how them making new connections with each other triggers a string of unintended consequences. The strong character work makes you understand everybody’s behavior and choices even if those decisions are frequently bad.
Grief is a big factor here with several characters mourning a dead loved one, and their reactions are varied. Donnie has lost his job as a cop and seems to content to live on booze and cigarettes in his increasingly filthy house. His ex-wife, Donna, has retreated to a shabby apartment where she spends most of her time listening to her record collection and rereading her son’s suicide note. Mikey is completely adrift with no idea of what to even try to do even as his mother is torn between wanting him to get his act together vs. wanting him to stay as her needy son. Ava has become all about her work at a nursing home although she doesn’t enjoy it, and she worries about Nick who seems to have come down with a terminal case of arrested development in the way that he is content to stay with her.
All of this character work is done extremely well by William Boyle, and like his other books, there’s an incredibly rich sense of place and the people. You feel like you know this Brooklyn neighborhood as well as its residents by the end of the book, and he also did a great job with the ‘90s setting by making it seem familiar to someone who lived throughout without ever descending to the nostalgia porn levels. I also caught a few connections to his other books so this feels like getting more history on a place I’ve visited before.
Overall, it’s the epitome of what I look for in a character based crime novel. After reading his three previous books I’ve said that Boyle was quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, and now he sits high on that list.
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