In her review of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande á part, Pauline Kael said that it was as if the director had taken a hackneyed mass-market crime novel and told the story through the poetry he read between the lines. This same spirit can be found in many of Godard’s films, rendering a simple description of any one of them disingenuous (e.g. saying that Alphaville is a science fiction film doesn’t really tell you anything about it). I encounter the same problem in trying to describe Brian Birnbaum’s Emerald City, the debut release from the newly established Dead Rabbits Books. Ostensibly a crime novel, you could easily glean from its cover a tale of drugs, money, Glocks, basketball and avarice. But this is only the furniture, the familiar tropes into which Birnbaum injects a vision that is thoroughly his own.
For example, how many crime stories can you think of where the corporate kingpin is a deaf man? And the crime that is being committed is defrauding government subsidies by running additional minutes on video relay services for deaf citizens? These are the kinds of inversions you can expect from Emerald City, named after the city of Seattle, where much of the novel takes place.
Benison Behrenreich, the protagonist, is a CODA (Child of Deaf adults), son of Marc and Ellen Behrenreich, an unusually wealthy and distinguished deaf family. As the novel opens, Benison is exiting high school, and his father has bribed him a spot on Myriadal College’s basketball team, the Rapiers. This serves as the backdrop for Benison’s confrontation with his limitations, physical and spiritual, facing his own inadequacy, his fear of failure and his efforts to redress his father’s crimes. We also have Julia Paolantonio, the granddaughter of Johnny Raciti, the brutal head of a securities racket, who recruits a young Peter Fosch to run drugs for him across the Washington-British Columbia border, and who is also backing the fraudulent scheme of Behrenreich Interpreting Services.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and the plot has a tendency to knot. But one of Birnbaum’s many gifts is his ability to make things move. He knows how to tell. For writers who find it difficult to generate action and advance plot without seeming effortful, they will find in Emerald City an example of how an author can keep you in motion, pushing from one event to the next, laying the tracks out as we encounter more information on the mystery surrounding the Behrenreich’s past and their criminal enterprise.
Birnbaum is able to achieve this largely through the strength of his sentences. Like his drilling basketballers, Birnbaum’s prose hustles from line to line. It is muscular, agile, and has a dogged energy. He favors alliteration, popping sonic constructions and sometimes obscure diction. This gives us lines like: “…chasing chemical interconnectedness under epileptic light shows.” And, one line down: “…Schedule I neuro-nuggets climaxing in synchronicity with a dropped beat.”
There are moments however when these same prosodic affinities produce some awkwardness. For example, we are at one point given a description of an “emaciated mattress,” or a slim joint, which is described as a “svelte cone.” Both emaciated and svelte are terms that apply quite narrowly to the human form, and a thin mattress isn’t exactly “emaciated,” just as a thin cigarette isn’t “svelte,” but Birnbaum, like Faulkner before him, seems willing to forego le mot juste in favor of the word he wants to use.
In addition to this, we get dialogue between the novel’s deaf characters, in italics and complete with descriptions of the corresponding signs. Birnbaum also has a keen ear for the vernacular of teenagers – specifically the kinds of affluent white kids growing up in the suburbs who adopt black-American slang:
“So. Julia. Is you a down ass bitch?”
“Doth one blazeth?”
“Do you like to get high,” Liza clarified.
“Oh. No. My dad is an addict. Recovering,” she added quickly.
“Oh, damn girl.”
“Well, we don’t have too…” Liza assured.
“No, it’s totally cool. I’m totally not against it. Totally a personal choice.”
“Totally,” said Shaz, amused.
Language also forms the other half of what distinguishes Emerald City from crime tales that could be thought analogous to it. Which is to say that it’s not so much what story you tell, it’s how you tell it. While Godard injected a literary sensibility into a foreign medium, the literary sensibility on display here is all Birnbaum’s. He doesn’t find the poetry in between the lines, the poetry is in lines themselves. And the poetry here – beyond the basketball, the high-crime, the riffage and the college kids blazing on Ikea couches – is temptation, power, the devices that corrupt and destroy family life, and the atonement one has to make for one’s sins.
It’s difficult to judge a writer based on their first effort. As readers, we barely know them. They haven’t developed a body of work big enough yet to develop a full perspective. Based on the intensity and energy of Birnbaum’s debut effort though, one can only hope he has a lot more in the tank for years to come. I eagerly await his next release.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. His work has appeared in Quillette, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, Bright Lights Film Journal and Political Animal. His collection of stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness, is available at Crowsnest Books. He currently lives in Prague.