LitStack Review: A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky

A City Dreaming
Daniel Polansky
Regan Arts
Release Date:  October 4, 2016
ISBN 978-1-68245-038-3

I knew nothing of author Daniel Polansky when, on the recommendation from a friend, I picked up a copy of his novel Low Town. It turns out I enjoyed that book so much that I sought out more. Now that I have read A City Dreaming, I am ready to deem him one of my favorite “new” authors.

A City Dreaming is not so much a plotted novel as it is a series of stories set in modern day New York City and centered on a character we know only as M, following him roughly through one year’s turning of the seasons. The enticement is that M is a wizard of some power, but unlike the typical boilerplate of what we tend to think of when presented with a literary magical being.

M is enigmatic. He’s low key, definitely scruffy, a cigarette smoking, hard drinking – heck, hard living drifter, unconcerned with the trappings of power, wealth or fame. He flies under the radar, although everyone in the supernatural layer of New York knows who he is. He is not loyal to either of the White Queen or the Red Queen (who are the rival heads of the main magical factions operating in the city), but he is well thought of and used by both for odd jobs and for times when they don’t want to get their own hands bloody. He has a cadre of friends and acquaintances, but at any given time they may be as willing to kill him as help him. Yet they are always willing to party with him, or bring him along for an adventure or to execute a vendetta.

It’s these jobs, vendettas and adventures that form the backbone of the book. And it succeeds spectacularly.

Each chapter finds M in a different situation. It might be somewhat benign, such as when, initiated by his itchy feet, he decides to go for a walk. Or he joins a couple of friends (not friends) on a subway ride where each potential connection has its own enticements and dangers. At other times the action is more dire, such as when he is pressed into attending a fancy soiree where he comes face to face with his nemesis, or when he seeks his own anger induced revenge, only to find that the focus of his rage is something quite unexpected. But in each situation, we travel through times and places and incidences and meet beings that are bizarre, off beat, risky, and unable to be defended by the rational mind.

Some of the events are horrific. Some are just plain freaky. Some are sentimental or farcical even a bit silly. But always we are treated to M’s sardonic wit, and his wry take on life that is rarely (but sometimes) serious. You get the sense that no matter what he’s dragged into, he’s really just trying to get by, to stay on the good side of the ubiquitous Management (the one thing that is bigger than the city), and to live his life on his own indifferent terms. Yet for all of his detached demeanor, M really does a deep moral compass when pressed. He’s not so much an anti-hero as he is a heroic being that just wants to be left to his own devices. It’s really quite glorious.

The writing is also glorious. It’s not just the plot or the characters, the environment or the dialog, even though those are all good. It’s the sudden turn of phrase, the different way of looking at things, at describing things, that are both unlooked for and wholly appropriate.

M stopped into the Crown’s Commons towards the start of October, just before that thing with the house – you remember – and he found Alice in a more than unusually desperate state of disarray.

“Everything all right today, Alice?” M asked, because that was what one asked in these situations, as one grabs a paper towel when a drink is spilled.

She sighed and looked around and dripped down onto the counter. “You have a girlfriend, M?”

“Not such as I’d admit to.”

“Keep it that way,” she said, her heart so tender you could have spread it over white bread.

That kind of evocative yet slightly off-kilter prose is not too effusive so as to inundate the reader, but occurs off-handedly often enough to feel … magical.

I tell ya, so far, this Daniel Polasky guy is hitting a thousand with me. I’m certainly going to try to slip some more of his books into my ridiculously huge TBR pile, to see if he can keep that perfect hitting streak in play. I have a feeling it will be my pleasure to behold.

~ Sharon Browning

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