By Toby Ball
of the great strengths of literary fiction is that it is able to
discourse on any number of issues and philosophies. When done well, the
fiction that can do that, while not broadcasting from the rooftops its
frantically beating heart because it's also telling an entertaining
story, is fiction that deserves to be shouted about from great heights.
Toby Ball's Invisible Streets is right up there, especially when considered with his two earlier books in the same setting.
Ball's third novel set in a fictional City that resembles the Big Apple, Invisible Streets stands alone from The Vaults and Scorch City,
and is set in another time jump from the second novel, to the 1960s.
Yet it has some familiar characters and themes for readers of the first
two books. (The cameos come right as they are needed for this novel and
include the one most anticipated at a crucial time.)
follows the paths of three men involved in different ways with a huge
remodeling project in the City. The New City Project is changing the
shape of town, decimating old ethnic neighborhoods, moving the haves
farther away from the have-nots, and having a far greater sociological
impact on the population than its creator, Nathan Canada, may have ever
imagined or cared about. Canada, who resembles Robert Moses, is a
take-no-prisoners urban developer with contacts above and below regular
commerce and political structures.
But although the novel
involves his big project, it's not really about him. It's about three of
the men who are concerned about the development from different
perspectives. Frank Frings, known to readers of Ball's earlier novels,
is back and still a left-leaning newspaper columnist. His old paper has
been taken over by a Murdoch-style rag and he's about the only reminder
of the old days. He's not given much respect there, but he still has his
contacts and curiosity. So when his retired boss needs help finding his
grandson, Frings agrees, and finds the college boy's disappearance may
have something to do with an LSD study at his university. There were
plenty of nondisclosure agreements signed and lawyered-up or discredited
professors surrounding the study.
Torsten Grip is a detective on
the force, although he's not too popular after his partner died in a
shoot-out and he got away. As with most cops in the City, he's not clean
but may not be excessively dirty in comparison to others. One of the
construction sites for The New City Project is missing all of its
dynamite. The usual suspects are what's left of the old Communists,
Kollectiv 61, but perhaps that's a setup by whoever really took it. In a
world as noirish as this one, anything is possible.
is Canada's right-hand man. Hired right out of the Navy, he's the guy
who gets things done in the neighborhoods and with the contractors at
prices that favor his boss. He's the man who can't be bribed. But does
he realize that isn't the same as being clean?
life isn't particularly cherished on these mean streets, one death takes
the main characters by surprise and becomes a catalyst for the
narratives of all three characters.
Into this mix, Ball has
included many of the political and sociological ideas taking shape in
the 60s and which have seen a resurgence in recent years. In addition to
the three main strands in the narrative, Ball has included excerpts of
writing and media by Frings and others that emphasizes a debate about
cities being for people or cities being for machines, about living and
working spaces that can serve human needs or corporate needs. They are
lightly used and could serve as writing workshop examples of how to get
across a political or sociological idea in fiction without drowning the
narrative in polemics.
All three of Ball's novels set in the City
have the feel and weight of a Warner Brothers noir masterpiece. There
is a great word picture that would make a superb visual midway through
the novel. On a large map, the areas that once were brightly colored to
represent different neighborhoods are shaded grey as the New City
Project takes them over. The City itself is grey, but the dark and light
in this story rarely mix compatibly.
works as both a thriller and as a contemplation of social philosophy in
action. Taken with its older two brothers, this is fiction that can
entertain as well as provide the spark of an idea or two about what's
important to us as individuals and as members of society living together
in a city.
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