2019 IBPA Ben Franklin Award Silver Medalist
Powell's Books Best Fiction of 2018
"Rosson is a talent to be watched." - Jason Heller, NPR
Marvin Deitz has some serious problems. His mob-connected landlord is strong-arming him out of his storefront. His therapist has concerns about his stability. He's compelled to volunteer at the local Children's Hospital even though it breaks his heart every week.
Oh, and he's also the guilt-ridden reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner who lit Joan of Arc's pyre in 1431. He's just seen a woman on a Los Angeles talk show claiming to be Joan, and absolution seems closer than it's ever been . . . but how will he find her?
When Marvin heads to Los Angeles to locate the woman who may or may not be Joan, he's picked up hitchhiking by Mike Vale, a self-destructive alcoholic painter traveling to his ex-wife's funeral. As they move through a California landscape populated with "smokes" (ghostly apparitions that've inexplicably begun appearing throughout the southwestern US), each seeks absolution in his own way.
In Smoke City, Keith Rosson continues to blur genre and literary fiction in a way that is in turns surprising, heartfelt, brutal, relentlessly inventive, and entirely his own.
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The years bled together. Each waking morning — or afternoon, truth be told, or evening — couched in a familiar bloom of panic. After that, after Vale realized where he was, who he was, came the rest: sickness, fear, assessment of damage, all of it stitched together with the fine red thread of guilt.
Art & Artists had once called him a "relentless avatar of our contemporary, post-nuclear unease."
He woke to the alarm, studded in fresh bruises. New scabs on his knees and his teeth loose in his mouth. His lack of memory familiar in itself. Sunlight fell in the room in fierce, distinct bands.
He stood shivering in the shower, the water lancing against him as lava, hot and malicious, compressed itself behind his optic nerves. This pulsing thunder in the skull, and moments from the Ace High the night before came to him slowly, like something spied through a fun house mirror. He bent over to pick up a sliver of soap and with his trembling hand batted a rust-dotted razor lying on the rim of the bathtub. The razor slid down the tub, luge-like, and Vale reached down for it, trying not to gag as dark spots burst like stars in his periphery. He stumbled and stepped on the razor. The crack of plastic, and thin threads of blood began to snake towards the drain. It was painless.
"Oh, come on," he croaked. "Shit's sake." He'd smoked nearly two packs of Camels the night before and sounded now like something pulled howling from a crypt. He tried to stand on his other foot to examine the cut and couldn't manage it. He put his foot back down and stepped on the broken razor again, and now the floor of the tub was awash in an idiot's Rorschach of red on white. He retched once and shut the water off, resigned to death or at least collapse at any second. The towel hanging from the back of the door reeked of mold and he gagged against it and dropped it to the floor. He left bloody shambling one-sided footprints to his bedroom.
Apart from the painting hanging above his bed (the sole Mike Vale original still in his possession), the fist-sized hole next to the light switch was the room's only decoration. There was a dresser pitted with cigarette burns and topped with a constellation of empty beer bottles. An unmade bed ringed with dirty sheets. The alarm clock on the floor. Plastic blinds rattled against the open window.
He dressed slowly and stepped to the kitchen. Flies dive-bombed bottles mounded in the sink, on the counters. The light on the answering machine was blinking. He pressed the Play button, already knowing who it would be — who else called him? — and there was Candice's voice.
"The only man in the country still using an answering machine." she said. "Okay. This is me saying hi. Give me a ring when you discover, you know, fire and the wheel." Her voice then became steeped in a cautious, thoughtful cadence, a measured quality he remembered more clearly from their marriage. "Richard and I should be heading up through there on tour for another Janey book soon. It'd be good to touch base, get dinner. Call me."
It was September, the last gasp of summer. The apartment was explosive with trapped heat. A swath of sunlight fell across the countertop. Just looking at that glare hurt his eyes, his entire body, made him feel as if rancid dishwater was shooting straight into his guts. A nameless sadness, the sadness, the exact opposite of the Moment and so much more insistent, tore through him like a torrent. Like a rip of lightning, there and gone, and Vale sobbed. Just once. One ragged, graceless gasp. Pathetic. He stood sweating over the answering machine, ashamed of himself.
He was out the door five minutes later, blood wetting his sock, cold coffee and aspirin hammering a bitter waltz somewhere below his heart.
Time had once called him "a shaman of America's apocalyptic incantations, one who catalogs our fears and thrusts them back at us in a ferocious Day-Glo palette."
On his way to the bus stop Mike Vale, the shaman, the avatar — looking down in his shirt pocket for a cigarette — ran directly into a telephone pole, hard enough to give himself a nosebleed.
From the journals of Marvin Deitz:
There's a grace inherent here. In writing things down. Like a confession signed, maybe. An admission. Nothing so lofty as a salve of the spirit, but at the very least it makes one feel a little better.
My earliest memory is of being in the marketplace in Rouen with my parents. I was probably three or four years old. I was walking with my parents amongst the stalls, as fast as I could manage, amazed not at the flood of people but at how the mass of them, the tide of them, parted for us. Because I'd thought at the time that it was me, right? My mother holding my hand, I thought it was me that made the people part ways for us.
I thought I was magic.
I did not notice at the time (but can imagine now, all too well) my mother's downcast gaze, the way we stepped hurriedly through the leering crowd. How we did not stop to look at the untold riches of food, the bolts of fabric, the tools for sale. Things we never saw in our own village. I didn't notice how my father gripped my mother's arm, nearly dragging her along, her belly huge and rounded as she was pregnant with my sister at the time.
Three, four years old. I noticed the people parting for us, I remember that, but not the revulsion in their eyes, the contempt.
I would realize later, of course, just what it was the townspeople had shied away from, had leered at: my father's coat, and the stitched image of the sword on the back.
The executioner's mark.
And as for Joan, those decades later?
She was not loved unequivocally. She just wasn't. At least not out loud. To do so was dangerous. But her victories, it was true, allowed some of us a rekindling of faith, a brief respite against death's constant stutter of war and plague and occupation. The hope that God was watching over us all. The idea of it, that He believed in France's sovereignty. That He might lift His face towards us again.
And thusly the order of her execution may as well have been passed down from the very day of her capture. The moment she was seized there outside the walls of Compiegne, it should have been clear to all that she would be put to death.
When Bishop Cauchon, toady of the English, bought her from the Burgundians after her capture, I knew the trial itself would be a hoax. A mockery. Yet I heard murmurings from serfs and landowners alike — from my darkened corner of the barroom, or on my way down the road to extract another bloody, weeping confession — and some of them hoped, prayed, that such a girl, who had served so obviously as the arm of God in the name of France, would not be allowed to die such a death. That God in His mercy would surely not allow such a thing. They prayed that Charles, their blessed King — after all Joan had done for him — would surely involve himself in the matter. That Burgundy would suddenly bend its allegiance like an arrow in the wind.
But I knew, there in the dim hallways of the heart, that men have simply do what they want to do. Men do their darkness and misdeeds and later claim guidance under the banner of God's will.
Shouldn't I know that more than anyone? Didn't I traffic in such matters?
She would die and they would call it divinity, because that's what people do.
The trial was orchestrated by dozens of assessors and friars and clergymen, an ever-evolving assembly of men. The lot of them little more than castrated politicians hiding behind the guise of theology. English storm troopers practically leaning over the benches with swords drawn throughout the entire sorry thing.
And Cauchon, ah, you should have seen him. Christ, that man. So puffed up with wine and his own righteousness and the quaking fear of an English blade suddenly tickling his balls in bed some night. Terrified, but paid well for his work, too. He would later die inexplicably in his barber's chair, and the vengeful part of me still hopes the barber was paid to bleed him. And that it hurt terribly.
I dream of Cauchon nearly as often as I dream of Joan.
But Joan. Every avenue circles back. Everything returns to the mysterious and martyred Joan of Orleans. The young peasant girl who for a brief heartbeat of time was believed to have felt God's lips pressed to her ear.
What of Joan of Arc?
For all of my grief and heartache and guilt, the truth is I only met her once, and that was the day I burned her alive.
"I turn fifty-seven next Monday," I said. "One week. Which means I'll be dead in six days or less. Or so history dictates."
Julia crossed her legs, cleared her throat. She said, "I know, Marvin. Would you like to talk about it?"
I smiled, pleased with myself, my hands laced across my chest. My sessions with Julia were generally the high point of my week. "Well, to tell you the truth? The fact that I've survived this long surprises me."
Within the periphery of my good eye, I could see Julia set her pen and yellow legal pad on her desk. She uncrossed her legs and smoothed her skirt — her version, I knew, of an exasperated sigh.
"Because you don't always," she said.
"Live this long? God, no. Hardly ever, in fact. I've died anywhere from a few weeks old to my mid-fifties. But this long? A week before my birthday? Nope, this is a record."
Julia waited for me to keep talking. When I didn't, she said, "And what do you think that means?"
I had thrown any amount of incendiary, outlandish trivia Julia's way in our sessions, and she always managed the same impassive, impenetrable veneer. That wonderful amalgam of detachment and polite, professional interest.
My relationship with my therapist, distilled: I confessed my sins and she tried, through dogged perseverance dense with silences, to convince me my truth was fiction. I bemused her; I confounded her. I was her high-functioning, erringly pleasant pet lunatic. I was her act of charity. I impressed her with the depth and seamlessness of my delusion. I paid her in jazz records.
Julia's office was in a strip mall on 82nd Avenue, amid a string of used car dealerships, apartment complexes with parking lots of buckled concrete, and fast food outlets with typos on their marquees. 82nd stretched for miles, a stitched scar running north to south, the city's class-dividing Cesarean. The traffic was ceaseless and deafening and on a hot summer day like today the stench of exhaust and melting blacktop was like a fist to the nose. Julia's office was couched between a tanning salon called Life's A Beach and an oft-darkened dry cleaners that I was convinced was some kind of front.
During our first session, I'd gone into her office and been surprised when she actually wanted me to lie on a couch, like in the movies.
"Is this really necessary?" I'd asked.
"It relaxes me," she'd said.
"It relaxes you?"
But now I couldn't imagine telling Julia the things I told her while sitting upright, hands planted on my knees in some office chair. In Julia's office, the couch — a lumbering leather beast the width of a twin mattress — sat flanked against one wall. She rarely sat at her desk; it seemed like something she kept around to throw her notepad on. A potted fern stood quietly dying in the corner. On the wall, Julia's diplomas and licenses hung amid a drawing her son Adam had done when he was either a toddler or very, very drunk. It was about what you'd expect of a therapist's office whose neighbor was a tanning salon with a dead starfish in the window display. And yet my profound disinterest in living — my outright contempt of it, actually — seemed to dissipate during the fifty minutes I sank into those vast, dark cushions. Seriously, I loved that fucking couch.
Finally, I shrugged — the couch gave a little squeak of protest — and said, "I don't know what it means. I don't think it means anything."
"Really? It seems like it might be an improvement."
Another pause. "Well, it's not," I said. "It's the same old shit, Julia, believe me."
Julia picked up her pad and wrote something on it and asked if I was still volunteering.
I nodded. "I have another shift later today."
"Do you have any different feelings about it?"
I smiled. "Besides a black and ceaseless disdain for any kind of supposed 'guiding force' in the world?"
A smile, humoring me. "I suppose, yes."
"No," I said. "No different feelings about it. I'm grateful for the opportunity to help there, and at the same time it makes me feel so powerless that I want to hit something until that something breaks. I want to rail against God."
"Well, honestly, that seems like a pretty normal response, Marvin. I mean we're all powerless in the face of death, aren't we? And they're children. It's got to be hard."
I turned and looked at her. Julia was a pretty woman, maybe ten years younger than me, with a glossy wing of auburn hair that covered one eye as she wrote and that particular softness that some people get when they reach the point where exercise becomes a luxury and not a lifestyle. It worked very well for her. A lovely scattering of freckles beneath her eyes. She wore dark hose and a brown skirt, a black blouse. I felt a surprising tenderness for her when I saw a chafe mark on her ankle, the cost of some ill-fitting sandal.
"You think I'm just afraid of dying. Is that it?"
"Julia, come on. It would be clichéd to say I've died a hundred times, but it wouldn't be that far from the truth. Dying is nothing new."
Chimes sounded in her desk drawer. The alarm going off, like some ethereal angel breaking wind. Our time was up.
I could see her dilemma. She was torn between calling me out on what she undoubtedly believed was my bullshit — the guilt over my made-up stories about Joan of Arc and Pierre Cauchon and all the rest were clearly, she felt, masking some other very real guilt. And yet she struggled with her education, her profession's standards and base practices, perhaps even her own beliefs and value system, all which staunchly noted that change must come from within.
I appreciated her for that, for that struggle. Because if she ever had actually called me out in the year I'd been seeing her, I'd have beat feet. Going and gone. I'd have promptly left her office and never spoken to her again. Our relationship was contingent on that structure: I confessed and she listened, no matter how ludicrous my tales. She could doubt but she could not refute. I needed to tell someone.
I extricated myself from the arms of the couch. A thinning, pot-bellied old man with a pair of prescription glasses, one lens transparent and the other ink-black. I felt relaxed. My Post-Confession High, I called it. I leaned over and handed Julia a paper bag that had been leaning against the couch.
She opened it and gently, picking it up from the edges the way I had showed her, extracted the record and laid it on her desk. A sealed copy, a 1959 original of John Coltrane's Giant Steps LP.
"Adam should be able to get at least a few hundred dollars for that," I said. "At least. Tell him to try the jazz auction sites first, then Discogs, and eBay as a last resort." She sat looking down at the record as if it were some kind of rune, some glyph to figure out. Coltrane's long fingers loomed on the cover, ratcheted around his sax. When she looked up at me there was a flatness to her expression, a blankness that surprised me.
"Are you in danger of hurting yourself, Marvin? I really need to know that."
I looked at Adam's childhood drawing on the wall — Jesus, was it a man surfing? A dog attack? I couldn't tell. "This is just how it is, Julia. I live and then I die and then I live again."
"You didn't answer my question."
"No. I'm not a danger to myself."
"Well, Marvin," she said, "I'd like to schedule one more appointment with you before you die." I laughed. Julia didn't. She thumbed through her planner, frowning. "Considering the fact that you believe you'll be dead by next Monday and reincarnated as ... How does it go again?"
"As penance for my past transgressions. For what I did to Joan."
Julia nodded, still with the frown. "That's right. For your sins against Joan of Arc."
"Julia, you're being glib."
"I'm really not, Marvin. How does tomorrow at three sound? Can you fit that in? I know it's short notice."
"Is sarcasm a popular method in psychiatry today?"
Julia looked up from her planner. She raised her eyebrows and smiled, but there was a coldness to it — I realized that I'd hurt her, that she'd allowed herself to finally be frustrated; she was taking it personally, the steadfastness of my delusion. "I'm not a psychiatrist, Marvin, remember? I'm a psychologist. A therapist. If I was a psychiatrist, we'd be having a very different conversation right now, believe me."
Excerpted from "Smoke City"
Copyright © 2018 Keith Rosson.
Excerpted by permission of Meerkat Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"Riveting, ambitious, and incredibly well-crafted, Smoke City is unlike anything you’ve ever read or ever will read. Part ghost story, part journey, part apocalyptic thriller, Rosson has created a novel that is gloriously original, and echoes the work of many imaginative writers, from Kurt Vonnegut to Jonathan Lethem."
“Smoke City kind of wrecked me, really, but in the best possible way. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt, resonant novel about all those things that mean to be human.”