After a robbery goes spectacularly wrong, a young American ex-con flees to Shanghai and goes straight, until his past drags him kicking and screaming back into crime.
In a nutshell, that's what Tomorrow City is about, but that synopsis gives you little sense of the power of Kirk Kjeldsen's fictional debut. I read this bleak and beautiful book in one sitting, repeatedly brushing off my husband's reminders that we were late with "just a few more minutes, I'm begging you." It's not easy creating a criminal with whom a reader empathizes, but Kjeldsen pulls this off. His Brendan Lavin, a criminal with a conscience, joins the ranks of criminal protagonists such as George V. Higgins' Eddie Coyle, W. R. Burnett's Cesare "Rico" Bandello, and Out of the Past's Jeff Bailey.
Brendan's mother took to heroin when her husband abandoned her and her young child. Growing up, Brendan was good at getting into things, working "with the grace and efficiency of a vaudevillian escape artist on stage." He started robbing warehouses and 16-wheelers with a crew, but one job went wrong, and he was arrested and sent to Rikers Island. To reward him for his silence, his old mates sent him cigarettes and protection money. Now that he's out, Brendan considers them even. He's working hard, running a New York City bakery, but when he can't pay his bills, he decides to pull just one more robbery.
It's a disaster, and Brendan needs to run. He's always been a tabula rasa; it's as easy for him to slip into another identity as it is for him to slip into a locked house, safe or car. Brendan has heard that everything is like the Wild West in China, so that's where he goes.
For 12 years, life is good. Brendan is married to Li and has a little daughter, Xiaodan. In Shanghai, he can hide his bakery in plain sight, where he's unlikely to be spotted, and still do good business. Unfortunately, "unlikely" proves too likely, and Brendan's past becomes his present and what looks like his future.
Writer Kjeldsen is an assistant professor in the cinema program at Virginia Commonwealth University, although he lives in Shanghai. His love and knowledge of the city is evident, and his writing is cinematic and poetic. No matter how far a man runs, sooner or later Fate will have him twisting and turning in her hands, and I read Tomorrow City with that delicious sense of growing dread dear to us fans of noir. My only criticism is that I wish Kjeldsen's characters were more fleshed out; when you're reading this good a book of 200 pages, you wish there was more. Still, it's a wonderful debut, and I'm putting Kjeldsen on my list of go-to authors.
Note: I received a free review copy of Tomorrow City, published by Signal 8 Press in 2013.
|Shanghai photo by Bruno Barbey/Magnum|