Anyone writing a 21st-century novel about New York-—one where the city functions as a bona fide character, not just a backdrop-—faces two thematic hurdles from the get-go. First is the tired yet timeless conceit of Manhattan-as-monster: that soul-sucking, power-drunk, steel-and-concrete beast that will enslave you as Anna Wintour’s Prada-pimping flunky or a beleaguered, diary-scribbling nanny—at least until your film rights are sold. The second (not unrelated to the first) is 9/11 and its wake. Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer tackled the latter head-on, with some success. But for any work set in the present, the event’s shadow is nearly unavoidable; six years on, it sits perched between history, myth, and reality, as immense as the towers themselves.
Enter Brian Francis Slattery, coming pretty much out of nowhere (OK, Connecticut). As his website résumé tells you, he’s an editor specializing in economics and public-policy publications. He’s written on voter registration and immigration raids for The New Haven Advocate. And he began work on an advanced international-affairs degree at Columbia in September of 2001. All this is oddly relevant to his debut, Spaceman Blues, a 21st-century New York City novel that vaults the aforementioned thematic hurdles like a turnstile jumper with a jet-pack.
As one might guess from the title and publisher-—Tor Books, home to genre fiction by actual spaceman Buzz Aldrin and alien-porn madam Polly Frost—it’s something of a sci-fi tale. There are extraterrestrials, and a stretch-Hummer-style airship. But employing a pun that demonstrates one of many sly ways Slattery conflates highbrow and lowbrow, Spaceman Blues is at heart about more familiar aliens: illegal, legal, semi-legal.
The story revolves around the first-paragraph disappearance of Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González, a Latino über-hombre not unlike like the magic- realist, Garcia Marquez–escapee his moniker suggests. Manuel’s gringo lover, Wendell Apogee, is determined to find him, abetted by a polyglot cast, the most important of whom turns out to be not Swami Horowitz, the visionary Jew living in the middle of Jamaica Bay, or “El Flaco,” the Dominican immigrant-smuggler from Washington Heights, but Masoud Azzi, a Lebanese dude–cum–Syrian fighter pilot–cum–pacifist living in Astoria. And the book is as much about experiencing immigrants as about the immigrant experience: With its characters alternately eating pupusas and hummus, swigging Jarritos, Red Stripe, and Turkish coffee, Spaceman Blues suggests that in New York’s multicultural arcade, we are all immigrants.
Slattery avoids the Manhattan-as-monster problem, just like many immigrants and Brooklyn hipsters, by mostly avoiding Manhattan. His novel hits Coney Island and Red Hook, chills in Breezy Point and the Rockaways, hangs in the stank of the Gowanus Canal and in a teeming underworld that makes the subway-dwellers documentary Dark Days seem like a small-town chamber-of-commerce promo reel. It’s almost as if midtown, Chelsea, LES, even Williamsburg don’t exist at all. And surprise: They aren’t missed.
As for 9/11, it’s never directly addressed in Spaceman Blues. But in addition to its sci-fi trappings, this is a detective novel and pulp thriller, plus a send-up of same. By the end, as chaos erupts at the hands (or, rather, tentacles) of foreigners, you don’t need any mention of the former WTC to see where the author is going. And notwithstanding a subplot involving a religious group called the Church of Panic, it’s done with a remarkably light touch and some delicious prose. Between bursts of comically hard-boiled dialogue, Slattery spins long, cadenced descriptions of the fantastical that feel like instrumental improvs. “And now the houses move and speak,” he writes, “the panels of the sidewalk stomp and clatter, and it all spreads outward, washing over the city until everything is alive in a deafening dissonance, a throng of rising cries that make Wendell reel, until Masoud grabs his arm and tells him come on, come on.”
The musicality of the prose may owe something to the fact that Slattery is a part-time musician. A member of the Mud Brothers and Wahoo (whose Wednesday residency at Old Devil Moon, 12th Street between A & B, resumes next month), he plays banjo and fiddle. And that’s kind of amusing, since in a novel filled with merengue, soukous, bachata, hip-hop, old-school funk, mariachi, cumbias, and reggae blaring out of old radios and tearing up house parties, “American music” like bluegrass, country, and rock are virtually absent. Welcome to post-national America, señora.
Early reviews of Spaceman Blues threw around the names of Pynchon, Doctorow, and Dick as stylistic touchstones. But Slattery should really be considered alongside NYC homeboys like Lethem and Shteyngart, the former for his loving tweaks of vintage pulp (see Motherless Brooklyn), the latter for his sharp immigrant comedy (see Absurdistan). Slattery doesn’t go as deep as those guys, and sometimes you wish he would. But for now, he’s written a breezy, funny, formally playful book that, as apocalyptic novels go, is a helluva cheerier beach read than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and so visual it cries out for a film treatment. Here’s wishing Slattery luck-—and betting it makes a more compelling New York movie than The Nanny Diaries.