Drowning City, by Ben Atkins

As with any publicity, every author needs an angle and Atkins’ is certainly one concerning his age. We’re told by the blurb he is an ‘astonishingly talented young author’ and his press release says that he ‘writes with the maturity of a forty year old’. Whether the fact that Atkins was 19 when Drowning City was published will illicit envy or awe in readers and fellow writers remains to be seen. In a terrible inversion of 1960s values, it seems that our current culture struggles to trust anyone under thirty: and is certainly astonished if they turn out to have talent. Even Atkins himself admits in his interview that his age is a ‘double-edged sword’. As far as appraising Drowning City, what Atkins’ age provokes is the sense that Atkins has plenty of time to develop the potential that he exhibits in his debut novel.

Drowning City is set in a 1930s American metropolis full of bootleggers, girls and crime. We follow cool criminal Fontana through the deluge of a single evening. Along the way, we get Mad Men-style historical nods to FDR, communism, race, the Depression and lots of scowls over cigars. Fontana’s rather stringent admin for a bootlegging operation gets out of sorts and leads to some more criminal intrigue. Fontana has to go on the run, square things up with his, ahem, ‘broad’ and ponder over his place in the criminal underworld.

The novel’s structure around Fontana’s noir mission over a single night gives Drowning City the potential for a high-octane narrative. Somewhat oddly, the protagonist stops at times to give meandering accounts of his childhood, his feelings and other touchy-feely things rather than being the swaggering gunslinger that one would expect for a noir. Fontana’s first person narrative seems to go from the literary standards of being unreliable – beguiling the reader by withholding elements of the story – to being a fastidiously reliable narrator. The reader is told the motives behind every character, details about the scene, the origins of the characters’ nicknames… you name it and Fontana has got a line on it. The novel’s opening is vividly rendered in the rush of bodies and smuggled booze in a downtown cafe, but drags at the heels of the narrative in a way that moves from a sullen atmosphere to, at times, an overwrought therapy session.

Atkins’ clear enthusiasm for the era is demonstrated in the themes of the novel and fans of the genre will definitely enjoy the author’s approach. Drowning City’s bluesy one-liners (‘the last I saw of Beppe was the chewing gum on the sole of his shoe’) and a central plot, that is well-constructed in its distribution of scenes and events, certainly has the makings of a solid screenplay and gives us some enjoyable moments in the narrative.

A rule that is probably familiar to many from their studies would be the art of ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’ when it comes to writing well. Atkins’ narrator tells the audience, rigorously, what is happening at every point in the narrative. When every look and action is explained, a reader isn’t drawn in and the momentum of the novel is flattened. Atkins has a good eye for character and the subtexts that drive them – be it double-dealings or emotional dependency – but sadly lacks the unspoken pacing and tension to match.

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TITLE: Drowning City
AUTHOR(S): Ben Atkins
PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House
RRP: $37.99
ISBN: 9781775535522

General fiction reviewer and generally bumbling Literature graduate. Having recently moved from London to Wellington, she’s still getting to grips with the Kiwi accent, not having to queue for everything or saying ‘sorry’ constantly. Her literary tastes sway towards modernists, novels featuring moany women (Madam Bovary) and authors with a filthy sense of humour (Henry Miller). Read more at jazzcroftjc.wordpress.com

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