Weaving between hope and destruction, fear and sorrow, fantasy and realism, American author and illustrator, Keith Rosson, expertly drives his ghostly, offbeat road novel, Smoke City, into interesting, unforeseen terrain. Set in modern-day America, Rosson’s impressive, character-driven fantasy is focused on two tortured souls, both haunted by past transgressions and both seeking atonement.
Mike Vale, whom the reader is introduced to first, described as “one of the most renowned contemporary artists in America” with his early and mid-period canvases reaching exorbitant prices, has experienced a rapid fall from grace. During his decades-long battle with alcoholism, he is convicted of DUII and second degree assault; he imprudently signs away the rights to his artwork to his avaricious agent; and he watches his marriage and career collapse beyond repair. Now, twenty-five years later, he is a “growling and weeping” crumbling wreck of a man, who is drinking himself to death, brooding on the past, unable to hold down a job, and incapable of painting or going a day without getting into a drunken fistfight with customers, bar patrons, and police officers. The news that his ex-wife from a quarter of a century earlier, a mystery novelist whom he was married to for three years, has died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage changes the course of his life. Feeling “a sadness rattling inside him” at the memory of her, Vale is determined to attend her funeral in Los Angeles, even though it means selling the one final piece of original artwork in his possession—“the last vestige of what he had once been capable of”—to buy a used car and fund his trip.
At the start of his journey, he picks up hitchhiker Marvin Deitz, the other central character in the novel. Dietz, a record store owner, is a partially blind, 57-year-old oddball, who believes he is the reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage, an executioner of Rouen, who was responsible for the execution of Joan of Arc in 1431. Facing eviction from his store on the grounds of noise pollution, and evading an attempt by his therapist to put him in a psychiatric hospital, Dietz also happens to be headed to LA.
Both men, brought together seemingly by coincidence, are on very different quests, and yet both are seeking salvation. Vale, wracked with guilt at his adultery and numerous indiscretions, and regretting a misspent life marred by alcohol abuse and reckless living, is in mourning for his dead ex-wife and struggling to cope with depression and low self-worth. Dietz, convinced he is cursed and will experience death and rebirth in a matter of days, is traveling to California in search of a spiritualist medium who claims to be able to communicate with Joan of Arc, inviting the possibility of Dietz, at last, obtaining forgiveness from Joan for what he did to her. It perhaps comes as little surprise that the redemptive element lies in the journey and not the destination, with the two men helping and emboldening each other and forming an invaluable friendship.
The shifting narrative, exploring the pocked and dented ruin of Vale’s past, and the tragic and unpleasant incidents in Dietz’s numerous, previous lives, gives Rosson’s intriguing, off-kilter novel additional layers of emotional depth. Dietz’s expressive, vivid descriptions of his life as Thérage and the agonizing day he lowered his torch to the tinder on the floor of the scaffold, burning Joan of Arc alive, adds a powerful, striking cord to the narrative. “The world was a roaring cavalcade of fire and faces around me warped and shimmered, dark faces, and I looked to the sky for respite and this—oh!—this is what I saw near the end: I saw a white curl of smoke leave the flames and rise in the sky and take on the shape of a dove. It flew into the sky, wings beating, and vanished.”
Deeply affected by Joan’s death, where he witnesses her soul leaving her body and ascending to the heavens, and conscious of the condemnation of the townsfolk, he comes to regard his livelihood as a “history of torture,” of “ruination and murder.” His journal entries adopt an anguished, repentant tone, as he becomes wracked with guilt and despair at the wretched part he has played in the lives of so many condemned souls.
As for the novel’s fantasy element, it comes by way of dozens of ghostly apparitions, referred to as “smokes,” spotted throughout the southeastern region of the United States. These unexplained smoke sightings of “afraid and bewildered, abandoned” figures, the color of old newsprint, range from miserable, disfigured men and young children to a woman in a wedding dress. The cause of panic and disruption, resulting in traffic accidents and flight bans throughout Washington, Oregon, and California, the specters reflect, to some extent, the psychological state of the piteous, haunted, remorseful central characters who wander aimlessly through life, endeavoring to overcome their self-loathing and end their personal suffering. Ultimately, these apparitions provide the spiritual connection Vale lacks and offer the spiritual guidance and forgiveness Dietz needs.
Although somewhat uneven and, at times, repetitive, Smoke City is a distinctive, emotionally rewarding story that moves and entertains. Rosson, whose debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, netted strong critical reviews, once again shows his talent for creating authentic, sorrowful characters and rich, beautifully wrought prose.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of nine literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. He writes regularly for the Colorado Review, and his book reviews for the Lancashire Post are syndicated to twenty newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York.