This tale of the inner workings of city politics in Philadelphia, Worthy of This Great City (Jam Publishing, 249 pages), is what you might term an impressionistic novel. Meaning that it consists of a plethora of descriptions of people and scenes with very little progression of plot. The reader steps back from the many colored dots and contemplates the thing as a whole, and that’s when it begins to come into focus.
Teeming with characters who play minor roles, the book has essentially only two main characters. The first of these is Constantine Manos, an investigative journalist, who is doing a feature article on the second, Ruth Askew, a radio personality on a local station and the wife of Councilman Thom Askew.
The names of the main characters, we presume, are meant to convey information about their personalities. From the early pages Ruth is presented as a woman with brains somewhat askew. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel she appears to have done little to straighten out her skewed take on any number of philosophical and religious issues. Here are a few examples.
(1) Ruth on Hitler, and parenthetically on her favorite subject, Ruth: “’Take Hitler . . . We talk about him like he was literally a monster instead of human. We refuse to acknowledge that we’re like him, but if we can’t then everything’s hopeless. I’m not explaining this well.’ She shrugged in irritation. ‘The thing is, I recognize all that’s shameful in myself; I claim it.’”
(2) Ruth on dissatisfaction: “I believe dissatisfaction to be the highest state of being. You could say it’s my religion. Life is dissatisfaction. God is dissatisfaction. Life is an aberration by definition, so trying to live in peace and balance means running away from life.”
(3) Ruth on America: “America is a country founded on an appreciation of human ignorance. That’s the real American motto: But I Might Be Wrong. That’s our greatness; that’s all that really matters. Anyone who’s never realized he might be wrong about something fundamental is an idiot. Anyone who’s never questioned his own politics shouldn’t be allowed to vote.”
Throughout her many appearances in the novel, Ruth goes on spouting off such opinions, only to leave the reader convinced of what he has learned early on—from both the way Ruth is presented and the way the narrator Manos describes her—that this is an airhead of a character.
As for the second main character, Constantine Manos, Con Manos for short, he is a man “with hands” (con manos in Spanish), although exactly what he is reaching out for we are not sure. Could be that he himself does not know. Before getting to his present position as a journalist specializing in city politics, he has briefly sampled the academic world and the legal profession.
In the early pages he describes himself as “a self-involved asshole,” and later he admits that he delights “in my own obnoxious, insistent, attention-seeking voice,” and secretly “gloats over my superiority.” Manos is not a narrator pretending to be something he is not; he is a man grown cynical by the time we meet him, when he is in his early forties.
The biggest problem the novel presents the reader lies in the fact that the two main characters, with whom we journey through 250 pages, are not very nice people: an airhead and a loquacious, arrogant cynic.
Manos does have redeeming features about his personality. First of all, he is a man with detailed expertise on the ins and outs of everything concerned with the city of Philadelphia. Secondly, he loves describing things. The strength of this novel lies in its many fine descriptive passages.
“Look west at Philadelphia and there are the newer hotels and the clean white spire of old Independence Hall, then further up there’s Billy Penn and further west of him our sparse handful of actual skyscrapers glaring from the constant haze, irradiated by an invisible sun. Then really look, examine it carefully and without preconceptions, and you start to notice the dilapidation, the collapsed infrastructure of our obsolete factory town, the brick walls bearing painted traces of ancient painted advertisements. Remnants of that former vital mercantile city are plentiful here along this river, that old living Philadelphia that was once so vigorous and callous and dangerous.”
Underlining the plot of the novel is precisely this state of the once worthy city and what local politicians are doing to make it great again. Manos (and obviously Mike Miller) has remarkable insights into how the city government works, or, perhaps more often, does not work, and a central theme involves plans for developing the waterfront—development schemes run the action of the book. Various characters are introduced, some largely invested in probity, many others, including local mobsters, who would not recognize probity if it walked up and bit them.
The way the plot operates sometimes reminds me of the way the plot apparatus moves along in an old private detective novel. Vaguely resembling Philip Marlowe, private eye, the investigative journalist Con Manos moves from place to place, often sticking his nose in spots where it is not welcome. Luckily, the requisite scene of the beating (when Philip Marlowe gets worked over for that inquisitive nose) never materializes. Manos goes to fund-raising events, city government meetings, and a lot of bars and restaurants, where he encounters large numbers of people who step into the novel, flash briefly, and go back to their secondary roles. This is, once again, a kind of impressionistic approach: few characters are roundly developed, but if you step back from the action, you can see them flashing through the plot.
As Con Manos moves along, so too do the seasons of the year. The book begins in summer and ends the next summer, and in airing out the seasons the author once again demonstrates his flair for detailed descriptions. Here, for example, is a riding stable in September.
“At the long barn the persistent September heat intensified the good, vibrant scents of manure and beast and earth, the overall sheltered silence emphasizing the unearthly call of bullfrogs from a ditch choked with evil green algae. Dogs of varied sizes and mixed parentage were padding around inquisitively, and a huge yellow cat was stretched atop one of several standard redwood picnic tables, enjoying what sun filtered through a stand of enormous oaks and pines, watching the leaves dance. Beyond the cleared yard fronting the barn the ground was carpeted with dried pine needles; there were small flowerbeds around some of the trees with plantings of familiar things like pansies and marigolds.”
Here is beloved Philadelphia:
“But I loved the city itself from the first moment I strayed into Philadelphia, and I include the ubiquitous, disregarded natural city: the explosions of feathery pink mimosas, the irrepressible Trees of Heaven, the Queen Anne’s lace and delicate, tiny fleabane blossoms like miniature daisies, the tall yellow or purple clover. The stray neighborhoods with decrepit back fences cloaked in sweet-smelling honeysuckle and blue chicory pushing through the sidewalk.”
Here is the Philadelphia Folk Festival as dark sets in.
“I suspect Ruth walked out onto that stage in a rage of frustrated arrogance. For one endless minute she simply stood behind the microphone and stared out at us, the thousand dark humps under blankets, the bouncing neon glow sticks, the luminous haze at the line of food concessions, the smokers tapping off ash by the Porta Potties, and the awkward, restless shadows moving up and down the roped-off aisles or carefully stepping over the confusion of tarps and blankets.”
For one scene Ruth ends up in Atlantic City, and this gives the narrator and author a good excuse for laying out another long descriptive passage:
“The boards were slippery beneath her boots, but despite the cold, sloppy weather they hadn’t been totally abandoned by the usual winter crowd, overweight and ill dressed and fairly desperate, or else merely elderly and of modest means and expectations. People who came down almost every day in their natty warm-up suits or sporty blazers, women with multiple tote bags, men in baseball caps. Gulls were everywhere, one instant mere black or gray silhouettes vanishing into the low clouds and the next unexpectedly close, emitting raucous screams from open yellow beaks, hovering competitively for a potential meal or squabbling meanly over scraps down on the rain-pocked sand while the waves came boiling in, sliding over the sand like hissing glass. Nevertheless some stalwarts, bored or romantic, bent under the wind down at the shoreline or sat hunched into sweatshirts and blankets atop the litter of seaweed and the sharp shards of clam and mussel shells. Further out, fat gray humps heaved into the low heavens as if in continual discomfort, and close above them, separated by one band of unlikely light, a wooly blanket of cloud moved north urgently, practically fleeing.”
The book, in a word, is a compendium of descriptive passages, encompassing whole walks of life. Here, for example, is Academia, an institution, among many, in which the versatile Con Manos has dabbled for a time.
“The entire clever, hip, narrow-minded ethos of that subtle arena, the notice boards with yellowed cartoons and faculty profiles, the torn orange vinyl on the lounge sofas, the classrooms with scarred wooden tables pushed together, the huge whiteboards crisscrossed with scrawled, recondite abbreviations differentiating postmodernism from structuralism from deconstruction: Foucault and Habermas and of course Derrida breaking apart those hidden oppositions, searching within and only within but never just fucking turning around. So much intense, urgent argument and analysis dedicated to describing an already circumscribed human prison, plus of course that ongoing defense of brilliant but eternally misunderstood Nietzsche. Styrofoam cups set next to laptops carefully recording every precious syllable of some shrewd middle-aged professor’s exploratory word games, those little testing pokes at your cultural prowess and intellectual potential while you stared at the spotless soles on his heavy work books propped oh so casually on a desk drawer. Faithful predictions of the return to socialism permeated those days despite that great dream’s apparent demise, as did a courageous refusal to retreat from implacable atheism even in the face of overwhelming victory.”
Amidst the many descriptive passages the plot of the novel struggles mightily to push on and get somewhere. In the end we have a scandal of sorts in city government, and even a death of one of the characters. But best not here reveal how the book ends, or what becomes of Ruth Askew, or of Con Manos. Suffice it to say that Worthy of This Great City is pervaded with intelligence from start to finish.
–U.R. Bowie, author of Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams, 2016