The Twenty-Seventh Cityby Jonathan Franzen
St. Louis, Missouri, is a quietly dying river city until it hires a new police chief: a charismatic young woman from Bombay, India, named S. Jammu. No sooner has Jammu been installed, though, than the city's leading citizens become embroiled in an all-pervasive political conspiracy. A classic of contemporary fiction,The Twenty-Seventh City shows us an ordinary metropolis turned inside out, and the American Dream unraveling into terror and dark comedy.
Author Biography: Jonathan Franzen is the author of the novels The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, and The Corrections . His fiction and nonfiction appear frequently in The New Yorker and Harper's, and he was named one of the best American novelists under forty by Granta and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.
“A novel so imaginatively and expansively of our times that it seems ahead of them.” Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times
“A startling, scathing first novel about American ambition, power, politics, money, corruption and apathy.” Jeff Jarvis, People
“Franzen has managed to put together a suspense story with the elements of a complex, multilayered psychological novel . . . A riveting piece of fiction that lingers in the mind long after more conventional potboilers have bubbled away.” Peter Andrews, The New York Times Book Review
“Franzen goes for broke here--he's out to expose the soul of a city and all the bloody details of the way we live . . . Franzen has written a book of range, pith, intelligence.” Margo Jefferson, Vogue
“A weird hybrid of realism and fantasy: municipal science fiction. Everything proceeds from a daring, outrageously unlikely premise.” Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker
“Mr. Franzen has proved with this immodestly ambitious first novel that he has talent to spare. His is a worthwhile entertainment, this picaresque tale the principal vagabond of which is its own sinuous plot.” Donna Rifkind, The Wall Street Journal
“Unsettling and visionary . . . The Twenty-Seventh City is not a novel that can be quickly dismissed or easily forgotten: it has elements of both 'Great' and "American' . . . A book of memorable characters, surprising situations, and provocative ideas.” Michele Slung, The Washington Post
“Franzen's tour de force (to call it a 'first novel' is to do it an injustice) is a sinister fun-house-mirror reflection of urban America in the 1980s . . . There's a lot of reality out there. The Twenty-Seventh City, in its larger-than-life way, is a brave and exhilarating attempt to master it.” Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
“He has the kind of ability that can take what one would have thought the most mundane of cities and render it as an utterly persuasive labyrinth of mystery and meaning.” Mark Feeney, The Boston Sunday Globe
“An imaginative and riveting examination of our flawed society. The Twenty-Seventh City provides a rare blend of entertainment and profound social commentary.” Christine Vogel, Chicago Sun-Times
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Read an Excerpt
The Twenty-Seventh City
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1988 Jonathan Franzen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn early June Chief William O'Connell of the St. Louis Police Department announced his retirement, and the Board of Police Commissioners, passing over the favored candidates of the city political establishment, the black community, the press, the Officers Association and the Missouri governor, selected a woman, formerly with the police in Bombay, India, to begin a five-year term as chief. The city was appalled, but the woman - one S. Jammu - assumed the post before anyone could stop her.
This was on August 1. On August 4, the Subcontinent again made the local news when the most eligible bachelor in St. Louis married a princess from Bombay. The groom was Sidney Hammaker, president of the Hammaker Brewing Company, the city's flagship industry. The bride was rumored to be fabulously wealthy. Newspaper accounts of the wedding confirmed reports that she owned a diamond pendant insured for $11 million, and that she had brought a retinue of eighteen servants to staff the Hammaker estate in suburban Ladue. A fireworks display at the wedding reception rained cinders on lawns up to a mile away.
A week later the sightings began. An Indian family of ten was seen standing on a traffic island one block east of the Cervantes Convention Center. The women wore saris, the men dark business suits, the children gym shorts and T-shirts. All of them wore expressions of controlled annoyance.
By the beginning of September, scenes like this had become a fixture of daily life in the city. Indians were noticed lounging with no evident purpose on the skybridge between Dillard's and the St. Louis Centre. They were observed spreading blankets in the art museum parking lot and preparing a hot lunch on a Primus stove, playing card games on the sidewalk in front of the National Bowling Hall of Fame, viewing houses for sale in Kirkwood and Sunset Hills, taking snapshots outside the Amtrak station downtown, and clustering around the raised hood of a Delta 88 stalled on the Forest Park Parkway. The children invariably appeared well behaved.
Early autumn was also the season of another, more familiar Eastern visitor to St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan. A group of businessmen had conjured up the Prophet in the nineteenth century to help raise funds for worthy causes. Each year He returned and incarnated Himself in a different leading citizen whose identity was always a closely guarded secret, and with His non-denominational mysteries He brought a playful glamour to the city. It had been written:
There on that throne, to which the blind belief Of millions rais'd him, sat the Prophet-Chief, The Great Mokanna. O'er his features hung The Veil, the Silver Veil, which he had flung In mercy there, to hide from mortal sight His dazzling brow, till man could bear its light.
It rained only once in September, on the day of the Veiled Prophet Parade. Water streamed down the tuba bells in the marching bands, and trumpeters experienced difficulties with their embouchure. Pom-poms wilted, staining the girls' hands with dye, which they smeared on their foreheads when they pushed back their hair. Several of the floats sank.
On the night of the Veiled Prophet Ball, the year's premier society event, high winds knocked down power lines all over the city. In the Khorassan Room of the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel, the debbing had just concluded when the lights went out. Waiters rushed in with candelabras, and when the first of them were lit the ballroom filled with murmurs of surprise and consternation: the Prophet's throne was empty.
On Kings highway a black Ferrari 275 was speeding past the windowless supermarkets and fortified churches of the city's north side. Observers might have glimpsed a snow-white robe behind the windshield, a crown on the passenger seat. The Prophet was driving to the airport. Parking in a fire lane, He dashed into the lobby of the Marriott Hotel.
"You got some kind of problem there?" a bellhop said.
"I'm the Veiled Prophet, twit."
On the top floor of the hotel He stopped outside a door and knocked. The door was opened by a tall dark woman in a jogging suit. She was very pretty. She burst out laughing.
When the sky began to lighten, low in the east over southern Illinois, the birds were the first to know it. Along the riverfront and in all the downtown parks and plazas, the trees began to chirp and rustle. It was the first Monday morning in October. The birds downtown were waking up.
North of the business district, where the poorest people lived, an early morning breeze carried smells of used liquor and unnatural perspiration out of alleyways where nothing moved; a slamming door was heard for blocks around. In the railyards of the city's central basin, amid the buzzing of faulty chargers and the sudden ghostly shiverings of Cyclone fences, men with flattops dozed in square-headed towers while rolling stock regrouped below them. Three-star hotels and private hospitals with an abject visibility occupied the higher ground. Farther west, the land grew hilly and healthier trees knit the settlements together, but this was not St. Louis anymore, it was suburb. On the south side there were rows upon rows of cubical brick houses where widows and widowers lay in beds and the blinds in the windows, lowered in a different era, would not be raised all day.
But no part of the city was deader than downtown. Here in the heart of St. Louis, in the lee of the whining all-night traffic on four expressways, was a wealth of parking spaces. Here sparrows bickered and pigeons ate. Here City Hall, a hip-roofed copy of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, rose in two-dimensional splendor from a flat, vacant block. The air on Market Street, the central thoroughfare, was wholesome. On either side of it you could hear the birds both singly and in chorus - it was like a meadow. It was like a back yard.
The keeper of this peace had been awake all night on Clark Avenue, just south of City Hall. Chief Jammu, on the fifth floor of police headquarters, was opening the morning paper and spreading it out beneath her desk lamp. It was still dark in her office, and from the neck down, with her hunched, narrow shoulders and her bony knees in knee socks and her restless feet, the Chief looked for all the world like a schoolgirl who'd been cramming.
Her head was older. As she leaned over the newspaper, the lamplight picked out white strands in the silky black hair above her left ear. Like Indira Gandhi, who on this October morning was still alive and the prime minister of India, Jammu showed signs of asymmetric graying. She kept her hair just long enough to pin it up in back. She had a large forehead, a hooked and narrow nose, and wide lips that looked blood-starved, bluish. When she was rested, her dark eyes dominated her face, but this morning they were cloudy and crowded by pouches. Wrinkles cut the smooth skin around her mouth.
Turning a page of the Post-Dispatch she found what she wanted, a picture of her taken on a good day. She was smiling, her eyes engaging. The caption - Jammu: an eye to the personal - brought the same smile back. The accompanying article, by Joseph Feig, had run under the headline A NEW LEASE ON LIFE. She began to read.
Few people remember it now, but the name Jammu first appeared in American newspapers nearly a decade ago. The year was 1975. The Indian subcontinent was in turmoil following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's suspension of civil rights and her crackdown on her political foes.
Amid conflicting, heavily censored reports, a strange story from the city of Bombay began to unfold in the Western press. The reports concerned an operation known as Project Poori, implemented by a police official named Jammu. In Bombay, it seemed, the police department had gone into the wholesale food business.
The operation sounded crazy then; it sounds hardly less crazy today. But now that a twist of fate has brought Jammu to St. Louis in the role of police chief, people here are asking themselves whether Project Poori was really so crazy after all.
In a recent interview in her spacious Clark Avenue office, Jammu spoke of the circumstances that led up to the project.
"Before Mrs. Gandhi dispensed with the constitution the country was like Gertrude's Denmark - rotten to the core. But with the imposition of President's Rule, we in law enforcement had our chance to do something about it. In Bombay alone we were locking up 1,500 lawbreakers a week and impounding 30 million rupees in illegal goods and cash. When we evaluated our efforts after two months, we realized we'd hardly made one speck of progress," Jammu recalled.
President's Rule devolves from a clause in the Indian constitution giving the central government sweeping powers in times of emergency. For this reason, the 19 months of such rule were referred to as the Emergency.
In 1975 a rupee was worth about ten U.S. cents.
"I was an assistant commissioner at the time," Jammu said. "I suggested a different approach. Since threats and arrests weren't working, why not try defeating corruption on its own terms?
"Why not enter a business ourselves and use our resources and influence to achieve a freer market? We chose an essential commodity: food," she said.
It was thus that Project Poori was conceived. A poori is a deep-fried puff-bread, popular in India. By the end of 1975, Bombay was known to Western journalists as the one city in India where groceries were plentiful and the prices uninflated.
Excerpted from The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen Copyright © 1988 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jonathan Franzen is the author of The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He has been named one of the Granta 20 Best Novelists under 40 and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Harper's.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
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- Western Springs, Illinois
- B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
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In Franzen's inimitable style of creating unforgettable characters, The Twenty-Seventh City is yet another must read. His brand of literature displays intelligence and depth comparable to John Irving and John Steinbeck.
Let me preface this by saying I am a HUGE Jonathan Franzen fan. I've read all of his published books, and many of his essays and other works he's published in magazines. That said, after reading Freedom and The Corrections, I expected much better than what I got from The Twenty Seventh City. The actual writing, as in any of Franzen's novels, is spectacular. It's blunt and funny and complex and lyrical all at the same time. The plot, however, is where the book loses me. The characters in the book were almost totally unlikeable and I can't imagine a reader who sympathizes or identifies with a single one of them. The book is hard to follow at some points, and just flat out bad at others. A decent effort given that it was his first novel, but Franzen could have done better. As a matter of fact, he DID do better in his later works.