A multi-layered study of love and loss told through vivid, lively prose polished to a high sheen, The End Of The City is the exceptional debut novel of David Bendernagel (@DLBendernagel). It is a book that I believe has the potential to touch each reader differently, depending on interpretation and individual experience.
The End Of The City certainly resonated with me — I’m still thinking about the novel days after finishing it and was fortunate enough to ask the author a few questions.
This review is based on a copy of the book provided by the author for that purpose. Although I try very hard not to ruin plot points for future readers, in this case there may be slight spoilers ahead.
In many ways The End of the City is a study of contrasts, two separate but connected stories told in alternating chapters by narrators a decade apart. Told in a fast-paced “stream of consciousness” style, the thoughts and words of the protagonists are often lightest when the subject matter is darkest and each deals with their problems differently, but at the core both face the same challenges.
The first narrator, Ben Moor, is in his final year of high school in a Washington DC suburban “planned community” in late 2002. Ben is: an exceptional high school athlete, a cocky, natural leader who tags his teammates with nicknames; shy and unsure around girls; so conversant in pop culture that it becomes a means of interpreting life; a reader and creator of superhero comics; and the big brother to Bobby, who just may be better as a runner and at life (except Ben’s the best).
Ben and Bobby are also dealing with the death of their father in a car accident, an event that has unmoored them from the insular suburban existence so many Americans take for granted. Their father’s death comes not long after 9/11, itself an event that served as a line of demarcation between what was and what’s next for many adolescents and young adults (including my own youngest daughter).
Ben’s father was a lawyer who was working long hours overseeing the relocation of his firm’s New York branch, which had been based in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The accident happened while he was driving home from New York to spend the weekend with his family. When Ben and Bobby compulsively watch video of the airplanes hitting the towers, they are seeing dominos falling from afar that in due course will lead to their own doorstep.
The other half of the story is told by an unnamed Assassin in 2011. Highly trained and experienced in sowing death and mayhem, the Assassin faces challenges that are more concrete and immediate: it appears the shadowy organization that he was once the star asset for now wants him dead. Like Ben, the Assassin considers himself the best at his chosen profession yet he also yearns for a love that is maddeningly near by but seems beyond his ability to realize.
Also like Ben, the Assassin has become unmoored from a reality he was comfortable living in, tossed into a much more turbulent and uncertain existence. Both were aware this was a possible outcome, saw it happen to others, but neither thought they would experience it. As the story progresses Ben and the Assassin become increasingly aware of each other, blurring the lines separating them. Is one the figment of the other’s imagination? Are they older/younger versions of each other?
I must admit it took me about two-thirds of the way through before The End Of The City really grabbed me emotionally. Up to then I was enjoying the stories of Ben and the Assassin, but I liked the chapters featuring the high school athlete a bit better, especially his scenes with Kitty, a childhood crush who moved away and lately returned. Then, like the proverbial light bulb going off over my head, I began to notice the parallels and connections between the two narratives, and suddenly the Assassin’s chapters were just as interesting as Ben’s.
Truthfully, they were always as interesting (I re-read several after finishing the book) but for whatever reason I wasn’t seeing it. This happens to me with those crazy “can you see the sailboat” 3D puzzle pictures, too. It speaks to the depth of Mr. Bendernagel’s story that I would have enjoyed the book regardless, but once that sailboat came into focus I began to make some emotional connections that made the experience more satisfying.
Even when done well — and make no mistake, Mr. Bendernagel’s prose is honed to razor-sharpness — at times “stream of consciousness” narratives can overwhelm me a bit. Plain and simple, I won’t get every reference (even with subjects I’m fairly familiar with like comic books, sports and video games) so at times I worry that I’m missing something important. Stopping to Google everything obscure to me is an option, though of course at the cost of being totally immersed in the story.
The End Of The City is an impressive debut for Mr. Bendernagel, and I was very pleased to learn he is working on a sequel. I can’t wait to learn what happens next. For more about Mr. Bendernagel and his writing, visit his website.