Sunday, March 20, 2016


DROWNING CITY by Ben Atkins (Vintage, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Debutant Ben Atkins demonstrates a distinctive narrative voice and fine touch for atmospheric setting in this 'it happened one night' noir set in Prohibition-era America. 

When Drowning City was released in New Zealand two years ago, much of the publicity focused on the dichotomy between its author's age and the maturity of the writing. Atkins began writing Drowning City while when he was 15 years old, then rewrote, honed, and had it published while he was still a young university student (think college freshman, American readers).

Regardless of the author's age, Drowning City is an impressive and polished debut. Set in an undefined American city during the Prohibition era, it follows bootlegger Fontana on a hazardous one-night search for the culprits behind the hijacking of part of a valuable booze shipment - a seemingly small crime that could create a nasty ripple effect and huge problems for Fontana's operation. Atkins weaves plenty of political and sociological threads into his tale while delivering nods to many classic tropes of 1930s gangster tales or mid-century noir.

Fontana is a wisecracking, tough yet philosophical hero, and his night-time odyssey through the booze-soaked mean streets of his city is full of intriguing femme fatales, hulking goons, and several zany characters. It could seem pastiche or cartoonish, but for me Atkins got the balance right, and I found the tale evocative and drenched in atmosphere, while sparking intriguing questions in my mind about broader political, economic, and human issues as the plot danced along. There's a real sense of lurking menace throughout, an urban dirtiness and danger, even among some cool characters.

One thing I enjoyed but others may not: there is a very strong narrative voice in Drowning City: Fontana's first-person perspective is a blend of wise cracks, asides, philosophising, and tough guy talk. He comments on things and acts as something of an old school narrator, as well as leading us through the action and setting. Although there is a strong sense of place and some terrific visuals that make me think Drowning City could be a wonderful film, there is plenty of telling to go with showing. Often a tendency to tell rather than show can be a flaw of lesser writers, but here it seemed to me it was intentional on Atkins part to create a certain atmosphere and style. A brave stylistic choice. For me, I thought it adroitly fit the story and the character, and Atkins delivered it well. But I think this could be a 'marmite' thing, where some will love it and others hate it or find it grating.

I found Atkins writing to be vivid and have a real sense of freshness, even as it harkened decades back to an historic time and place - a little akin to the television series Mad Men, in that way.

Fontana is a fascinating 'hero' that I found very easy to follow, even though he's a criminal who crosses the legal lines on many occasions. He has a sense of 'coolness' blended with honour or righteousness. He crosses some lines, but will also draw the line - he is still a bit of a good guy rather than completely irredeemable. Looking at his world through his eyes is an intriguing journey.

Not that Drowning City is without its flaws. I felt the story lagged just a touch now and then, and Atkins also creates such an evocative atmosphere and distinctive style that there is a risk that his novel could come across as more style than substance for some readers. The style resonated with me, but won't for everyone - and may even be off-putting - which would be a shame as those readers may then overlook all the layers and substance that Drowning City does contain.

Overall, I found Drowning City to be a hugely impressive debut, an accomplished noir novel that combined an evocative atmosphere and distinct authorial voice into a very enjoyable read. I'll definitely be reading Atkins' next novel, whenever that comes out.

Drowning City was longlisted for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award. I initially read this book in 2014. This review is based on notes taken at the time, a shorter review written elsewhere, and further reflections. 

No comments:

Post a Comment