As I stand reading on the subway, two kids about 10 years my junior bump into me, knocking me out of concentration and shaking me back to New York in 2015. A boy and a girl, both dressed in the very now unisex look – a look I found childish and stupid in middle school, now de rigueur and making me look stupid and out of touch. The boy and girl are dressed nearly identical. Stonewash jeans, tapered. New Balance sneakers, one pair suede gray, the other white. Puffer jackets, one forest green, the other blue. A snapback Pittsburgh Pirates hat and an orange knit beanie. The ‘90s are back, and their aesthetic lives on with the cool kids who are too young to remember the sociopolitical importance of the “little blue dress,” but who slavishly comb through the flotsam from the end of The American Century.
With the ‘90s enjoying popularity not seen since, well, the ‘90s, it’s only natural that a generation of writers who came of age then will begin to make sense of them, and that’s precisely what David Bendernagel does in his debut novel The End of the City. Set roughly between 1993 and 2002, the novel deals with Ben Moor, a class of 2002 sports star mentally unraveling in the months after his father dies. Ben lives in Reston, Virginia, an upper middle-class suburb of Washington D.C., and we follow him as he navigates a suburban minefield of friends, sports, girls, and a damaged family while retreating further and further into himself.
Alternating with Ben’s story is the comic book-esque tale of an unnamed assassin on the run and on a final mission. The assassin’s story, (set in 2011) also begins in Reston, and ends ambiguously on a rooftop in New York city, a place that dominates Ben and his brother Bobby’s imagination as they associate the 9/11 terror attacks with the death of their attorney father, which occurred a few weeks afterward. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that both Ben and the assassin are aware of one another, separated only by a thin membrane that may be imagination, a dream, or a manifestation of multiple personalities. If the assassin is a creation of Ben’s, his vague vision of 2011 and failure to mention any period details (social media, President Obama, the aftermath of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan) would make sense. What becomes obvious is that Ben isn’t the assassin – what little details that character offers about himself make it clear that he is older, wiser, and, amazingly, more damaged than Ben is.
Where Bendernagel excels is the accurate tone and period detail that goes into his turn-of-the-century Reston. The video games, music, VHS tapes, and suburban housing developments are startlingly vivid, and Ben and Bobby’s friends are the most accurate and realistic depiction of characters in a suburban post-9/11 setting that I’ve ever read. Being two years younger than Ben Moor, The End of the City could possibly be the first book that I’ve ever read where I can say, “Yes, I was there; and yes, that’s how it was.”
The story’s weakest moments come during Ben’s relationship with Kitty, the bass-playing artist that he falls for while trying to keep up his adolescent ideal of manhood intact. Dealing with his insecurities, self-doubt, and mourning his father, Ben is preoccupied with sounding “too emo,” and frequently apologizing for offering up too much information, second guessing himself, or writing off his beliefs. While it may be an accurate portrait of a teenage boy with self-esteem issues, at times it can feel like a clumsy and apologetic way to excuse weaknesses in the plot. And while the assassin serves as a capable foil to Ben’s adolescent lone-wolf fantasies, the story doesn’t hold up well on its own.
Weaknesses aside, The End of the City is overall a strong and entertaining first novel that perfectly conveys the uncertainty of adolescence during one of the most uncertain times in recent history. Bendernagel captures that moment of twilight between the analog age and the digital, between attack and war, and between childhood and adulthood. It brought the ‘90s back to someone who’s not exactly keen on reliving them, but was surprisingly happy to visit with them for a short while. Let the kids who don’t remember the ‘90s have them; they were a young person’s game anyway. And this is how they really ended.