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by Don Winslow
William Morrow, April 2022
354 pages
ISBN: 0062851195

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Brilliant things can happen when writers re-imagine classical plots. Indeed, when done well, these re-visionings have the potential to provide valuable insights into the human condition and reaffirm age-old questions that we have about what it means to be human. Think Michael Cunningham's The Hours, Madeline Miller's Circe, or even Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Sadly, this does not occur in Don Winslow's CITY ON FIRE. In an explanatory letter that comes prior to the title page, Winslow explains that this is the first of a trilogy that "follow[s] the character of Aeneas [a fairly minor player in the Illiad]…but this time in an American mob epic with the character of Danny Ryan." This "epic" is split into three part: "Pasco Ferri's Clambake, Goshen Beach, Rhode Island, 1986;" "City on Fire, Providence, Rhode Island, 1986;" and “The Last Days of Dogtown, Providence, March 1987."

We plunge into the world of the "black Irish" Ryan and Murphy families, where the former had reigned as the "Irish kings of Dogtown" until the paterfamilias descended into an alcoholic stupor, leaving the Murphys to take over control. Danny, the neglected son of the ex-king, marries Terri, the daughter of the now-king, and life is good. The Murphys get pulled into a turf war with the Italian Morettis, who have had an alliance with the Irish gangs until one of the Murphy boys sexually assaults Pam, the girlfriend of one of the Moretti boys, a woman who had, until recently, been the girlfriend of one of the Murphy boys. As the body count mounts, Danny Ryan, working through a variety of identity issues, rises through the ranks to take his rightful place as the leader of the Irish in Dogtown.

Writer of multiple crime series including the Neal Carey series, the Cartel series, and the Boone Daniels series and nominated for multiple awards including the Edgar Award, the Shamus Award and a Dilys Award and winner of Italy's 2012 Raymond Chandler Award, Don Winslow is an institution when it comes to crime fiction. Every book he pens, it would seem, is nominated for an award or is optioned for a series or a film. Indeed, the final book of his Cartel trilogy, THE BORDER, is currently in production as an FX series after having been named one of the best books of the year by media giants The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Irish Times, and NPR, among others. It was, therefore, with a great deal of excitement that I dove into this book. Unfortunately, the plot is both predictable and boring: men killing each other over small dick jokes and pissing contests over who has the right to "own" the beautiful woman (I wish I was kidding). The writing is stilted and formulaic, with dialogue reminiscent of a sad second-rate version of The Sopranos ("She don't mind he looks at other women as long as he brings it home to her. A lot of married guys, they need some strange every once in a while, but Danny don't" (5)). Further, the poorly developed cartoonish characters never become more than cardboard cutouts re-purposed from dated mob movies to flesh out a tired story that doesn't quite work. The worst part, by far, is the unnecessary and tone-deaf racism, gay bashing, and misogyny. Even in 1986 and 1987, they knew better.

These cringe-inducing moments, coupled with the other faults mentioned above, render this text virtually unreadable. Given that the rights to this book have already been purchased so that it can be turned into a television series, it is entirely possible that I have missed the mystique of this book, but I doubt it. Perhaps this would be the perfect book for your Uncle Morrie, the "weird uncle" who no one likes to talk to at Thanksgiving. For the rest of us, though, I'd pass.

§ Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier is an Assistant Professor of English and Co-Chair of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Reviewed by Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier, April 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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