Violent crime in our fair city has decreased 75 percent in the last five years. According to John Jay College’s Law Enforcement News, New York City is now as safe or safer than Provo, Utah. Provo—a place with skirts down to the ankles and no caffeinated soda in the vending machines. So what’s a New York novelist who specializes in the gritty city to do? He could locate his book in a less salubrious milieu. (We hear Detroit’s still nasty.) Or he could flip the calendar pages back to when New York was dangerous.
Arthur Nersesian opts for both. He sets his latest novel, The Swing Voter of Staten Island, in 1980 Nevada, where the federal government has built a New York simulacrum called Rescue City. In Nersesian’s alternate universe, 50 contamination bombs have made the real Manhattan uninhabitable. The Feds have sent the displaced peoples west, but then discover that they’ve relocated dozens of terrorists. So they turn the refugee camp into a prison camp, with no one permitted to leave.
Rescue City is unquestionably more dangerous than the city it mimics. Characters meet their various makers via bullets, bombs, concrete slabs, arrows, knives, nooses, screwdrivers, spears, scythes, and—most horribly—pigs. Nersesian relishes writing these violent scenes, and his protagonist, Uli, much increases the murder rate during his weeklong visit. He arrives in Rescue City with no long-term memories save instructions to hop a few buses to Cooper Union and assassinate a politician. As he wanders the bleak streets of the outer boroughs—dodging car bombs and gang cops, romancing mayoral candidates (ick)—he tries to piece together his past.
Though sometimes uncomfortably similar to the B-movie classic Escape From New York, Swing Voter aspires to be more than just a genre thriller. This isn’t always a good thing: The central mystery is solved on the last page, as though it were an afterthought; for long stretches, Nersesian ditches the plot and focuses on the Armenian genocide. But the book succeeds as a teasing love letter to the dirtier city of yesteryear—downtown stalwarts like P.S.122, Tompkins Square Park, and CBGB appear in disguise. La MaMa materializes, rendered as Mamasita’s Blah Blah Theater. Of course, in Nersesian’s world, it’s a place for both political drama and a gruesome double murder by means of sharpened broomstick. That’s entertainment.