I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
Emerald City is both Brian Birnbaum’s debut novel and the first release from a new press, Dead Rabbits. It should be noted that Birnbaum is one of the founders of Dead Rabbits. Both the author and the press are clearly out to make a splash. My initial reaction as I began reading Emerald City was, “This reminds me of Infinite Jest“. I never shook that comparison throughout the reading of Birnbaum’s debut novel. The up-close-and-sometimes gruesome descriptions of humanity, particularly of young men. The detailed organization and description of a sport and how it absorbs its athletes, both lifting them up and destroying them. (In this case, it’s basketball, a sport I’m about as interested in as tennis, but the details were evocative and helped me along in an arena I was unfamiliar with.) And there’s something in Birnbaum’s writing, the way he puts words together, that reminded me of Foster Wallace. The book is filled with unexpected verbs and surprising, very descriptive (sometimes too descriptive) nouns and adjectives. Birnbaum doesn’t shy away from close ups of people at their lowest, dirtiest, and very worst. He pulls your attention in and it’s hard to look away. Also like Infinite Jest, I did find myself wanting to read a more heavily edited version of this book. Not just because of the unpleasant details of bodily function and substance abuse but because some of the descriptions went on too long or felt repetitive.
The storyline includes elite college athletes, organized crime, and drug-running across the US-Canadian border. The main character is Benison Behrenreich, a college basketball star who is good but not that good, meaning his father’s money got him the position on the team. His father is also entangled in fraudulent activity, the CEO of a deaf access agency that is defrauding the government. As the story progresses, we learn just how out of control this situation is and how tangled up the characters are. There are some late reveals in terms of plot that I would have liked to learn earlier on but overall, the rate of reveal is done well and it was enjoyable to piece together the connections of this elaborate crime.
Along with Benison, we have Julia, whose father has just died after a drug relapse, and is forced to make a deal with the devil (also known as her grandfather). And there’s Peter Fosch, violent and charming, broken in all the worst ways, a drug runner who becomes Julia’s key to getting what she wants, as well as being embroiled in the Behrenreich scandal. These three young adults become connected (even when they don’t know it) in rainy Seattle at the beginning of this decade.
In some ways, Julia’s character was clearest to me. Perhaps because she was the only woman given an in-depth characterization and perhaps because her childhood background seemed the easiest to understand to me. At times, Benison and Peter’s personalities and experiences seemed to meld together. Both are a mess (in slightly different ways), mostly involving drugs. In the end, Benison stands out and is given the clearest character arc. Peter seems to get a little lost and I was disappointed to never see the end of his story (or at least a decent conclusion).
I appreciated the setting of Seattle, an American city I’ve visited a few times, and I thought Birnbaum did well at creating a fictional world within a very real place. The weather, the traffic, the culture of the place (particularly the very real divide between wealth and poverty) are all on display here and I felt like we were really walking through those streets.
Birnbaum certainly has a unique voice. In the end, I would have preferred a more pared down, more edited version of this story. I think the plot would have been stronger and clearer if there had been less focus on maintaining that unique voice and if many of the descriptions had been pared down. At the same time, I do believe there is an audience out there for this book. Those who love David Foster Wallace’s writing will likely find a lot here to enjoy. Young men, particularly any who have been immersed in competitive sports, might find themselves on these pages. I’ll be interested to see what we’re hearing of Birnbaum in the years to come.