In Manning’s novel, a man finds himself homeless on the streets of Brooklyn as he attempts to escape his past life in Beijing.
To say that Alex is down on his luck is an understatement. As the story opens, he spreads his last $768 across the bed of his rented room and anticipates “bottoming out.” With a stack of monthly bills unpaid, he realizes that something needs to change. But things get worse when he botches a search for cheaper accommodations and ends up homeless. Salvation comes in the form of Pope John Paul Roman Catholic Church, where he discovers a crawl space that becomes his new home while he searches for work and connections with others. He is, however, socially awkward, particularly around women, and he easily develops unhealthy crushes. The novel flips back and forth between his struggles in Brooklyn and the previous year that he spent working for a software company in China. His role there was to help “Americanize” the company’s employees, and by night, he delved deep into Beijing’s sordid underworld. The novel seems to urge readers to root for the present-day Alex, while also highlighting the nagging disparity between the man he was in Beijing and the blundering wreck he’s become. Debut author Manning writes with all the fluidity and poise of a seasoned author. His narrative is matter-of-fact yet acute in its observations and delightfully accessible: “There is something special about that end of Brooklyn. It’s a strange corner of the world: warehouses, junkyards, monstrous trucks rolling by, weeds rupturing the curb. Dystopian, groaning garbage trucks. Toy-sized humans driving super machines—thriving at the edge of the planet.” A gut-wrenching, entirely unexpected plot twist highlights Manning’s masterful skill as a storyteller. This tour de force captures the intimidating hubbub and toil of two very different cities, along with the precarious nature of urban realities. Overall, it’s an unsteadying novel that will cause readers to reassess their perceptions of others and question the limits of their compassion.
A powerful, beguiling literary cocktail of laughter and disgust, empathy and hatred.