A brutal parody of urban renewal and its casualties takes the guise of a domestic elegy.
A novelistic trickster (Harvest, 2013, etc.), Crace engages in some subversive sleight of hand here, introducing a story about a recent widower, a formerly acclaimed singer named Alfred Busi, known to all who still remember him as Mister Al, who “wonders if he’s running out of days” and, in the meantime, struggles to find some purpose or significance to fill them. Then comes the first attack, which leaves him bloody and bandaged and fearful of rabies. But he can’t determine who or what attacked him, because the town struggles with not only wild animals, but “wild people,” whether they be impoverished homeless people or naked Neanderthals, “humanzees,” as local legend has come to know them. Through a gradual transition, Mr. Al comes to seem less like the protagonist than a pawn in a developer’s scheme (as well as a novelist’s), especially after a sensationalistic journalist publishes a story about the attack as a cautionary tale about the dangers for the haves of living amid the have-nots. The narrator hovers over the story but rarely intrudes, except as a bystander, a resident of the town, whose occasional opinions pass as conventional wisdom. It isn’t until the last quarter of the book that the narrator identifies himself and his perspective (and its limitations), as the novel proceeds to a climax that will barely involve Mr. Al at all. “Our town will never be the same again,” muses the narrator, “though it is hard for anyone to say if this is for the better or for the worse. Each gain is paid for with a loss.”
With devastating understatement, Crace offers a parable for a time in which empathy has given way to callousness and fear.