A thriller chronicles a metropolis’ descent into moral chaos.
The summer of 1977 was an infamously tumultuous time for New York City. It was plagued by economic malaise, civic unrest, and a crime wave that created a sense that anarchy was overtaking the five boroughs. To make matters worse, a serial killer—the Son of Sam—terrorized residents, his acts of random violence punctuating the city’s downward spiral into lawlessness. In his novel, Lanter (If the Sun Should Ask, 2016) captures the sense of moral decline and trepidation that hung over the city like a storm cloud (“The Big Apple is unsettled, grimacing with a collective angst. The City is besieged by crime. Homicide is advancing at an alarming rate—upwards of four a day—mostly young women”). He focuses on the Son of Sam as a sign of the encroaching darkness. There is some sharp comic relief—the police hire an eccentric clairvoyant to aid their investigation, and her erudite, otherworldly asides are memorable. And Mathias Teivel, a television producer, opportunistically—and often hilariously—tries to figure out how to work the city’s obsession with the Son of Sam into the cop show Kojak. The narrative is experimentally nonlinear, and the authorial perspective leaps from third-person omniscience to the Son of Sam to another killer inspired by him. Or, so it seems—the prose is frenetic and dense, and the maniacally paced story is all but impossible to follow. Characters are bestowed numerous monikers—“Super Sleuth,” “Super Swinging Dick,” “Dynamic Duck,” “The Duke of Death”—so it’s often confusing who is being referred to. In addition, the author’s dense, adjective-laden, and alliteration-addicted style is always challenging and sometimes incoherent: “Sam grins, malocclusion, rotted yellow teeth glinting in the pale of a weak winter-sun metal-halide gas-discharge medium arc-length lamp.” Similarly, the book’s gritty realism is undermined by inexplicably fantastical dialogue. Still, Lanter displays a knack for making the implausible tantalizingly credible—the city’s moral turpitude leads some to believe in an old urban myth that once a certain threshold of collective evil is traversed, Satan himself will appear to direct the self-destruction. But too much intelligibility is sacrificed on the altar of literary novelty, and it’s never clear why Lanter chose such an idiosyncratic style, especially one incongruous with the signature idiom of New York in the ’70s.
An unusual and artistically ambitious—but convoluted—account of a New York City gripped by fear.