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At the City's Edge, Marcus Sakey, St. Martin's Minotaur, $7.99.

At the City's Edge by Marcus Sakey

I guess miracles do happen. Marcus Sakey's first book, The Blade Itself, was chock full of obvious talent - a way with prose, a good feel for a hook, a memorable story and struggle between two characters. But there was something a little bit slick about it. His second novel, At the City's Edge, proves that he's thrown aside his writing learner's permit and stepped up to the big leagues. This is a terrific novel, full of all the things a terrific novel should be full of, including honest emotion and a scary and wide eyed look at uncomfortable - to put it mildly - situations.

The story is a complicated and gripping one. Two brothers, Jason and Michael, are just getting to know each other again after Jason has returned from duty in Iraq. Sakey does have a genius for the "hook", and the one in this book is a dandy. Jason is beset in the very first scene by two thugs who want something his brother Michael has. Jason is shaken and goes to talk to his brother about it, but Michael puts him off and Jason is too wrapped up in how own misery to truly pay attention. His attention is grabbed when his brother's business - a bar in a crummy neighborhood - is burned to the ground with Michel inside. What's left behind are Michael's secrets, his nine year old son, Billy, and a Jason who has to figure out how to move past the war and function in the reality of his life.

What infuses this book with real power are several things. One is Sakey's look at the gang warfare that's tearing up the Chicago neighborhood where his brother and nephew lived; one is the world weary cop, Cruz, on the outs with the rest of the department for sleeping with the wrong guy; and the last one makes me feel very old. It's the war in Iraq. Being of a certain age I grew up hearing about Vietnam while my Dad watched the news, and all through high school and college I saw the movies and read the books that talked about and dealt with that war. Well, there's a new reality, and it's Iraq, movingly and horrifyingly illuminated through flashbacks in Jason's head. Iraq is doing as much damage to the national psyche as Vietnam ever did, and this book and others are probably only the beginnings of a long tide of work looking at our present national disaster. But part of Sakey's brilliance is tying together gang warfare with the war in Iraq. He makes them seem very similar. And because Jason has been a soldier in that war, he has a bit of an edge as he looks for the enemies that killed his brother.

Of course this is a coming of age story, but what really seems new about it is the unfortunate new reality that the moral compasses of the past are simply not there. There are only unsteady alliances, some made in this book between gangbangers, some between politicians, some between cops. The center truly does not hold as Jason is adrift in a world where nothing is what it seems, and few if any are untouched by corruption. I guess that's the real definition of noir, but in Sakey's capable hands, it feels new. There's lots to enjoy in the book, one of the things being a truly rocket powered narrative - the action scenes are especially well written, and because Sakey is a gifted prose stylist, they become memorable.

But the characters are wonderful too. Their emotions are recognizably human and their behavior seems familiar - people you know act and feel like this. By using the unsteady Jason as his conduit in, Sakey has managed to illuminate an entire corner of a corrupt universe, while still keeping it human. The tears I shed toward the end of the book felt well "earned" - there was no emotional trick that got them there, just an honest to goodness look at the emotions of the main character. This is a new writer to take notice of, and a book more than worthy of his obvious gifts.

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