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Onyx reviews: The City by Dean Koontz

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/24/2014

The City tells the story of a young, black musical prodigy as he experiences one of the most difficult and pivotal periods in his life during the tumultuous late 1960s. Jonah Kirk dictates the book nearly fifty years after these events, so the language is mostly that of an older man rather than a naive and wide-eyed boy. 

Jonah is the grandson of a veteran big band piano player and the son of a nightclub singer, so he comes by his musical talents naturally. The pregnancy derailed his mother's university plans. His father abandoned the family shortly after he was born, returned for a brief period and took off again, so his life has rarely been stable. He and his mother live on the fourth floor of an apartment complex, where his caregiving is often outsourced to friendly neighbors because his mother works at a department store in the daytime and at various clubs at night. After his grandmother dies, they move in with his grandfather.

Though The City starts out seeming like it might be an urban homage to Something Wicked This Way Comes, it's hard not to see the book as a kind of religious allegory, given Jonah's first name. The book does have some vague references to the nature of God and to the spiritual meaning of life, but this isn't the novel's main focus.

The book flirts with the supernatural: certain objects are thought to contain the talismanic power of juju (or voodoo), there is a character who seems to have the ability to appear anywhere she wants, even through locked and bolted doors, though this talent is never explained. There is a pendant given to Jonah by a garrulous taxi driver, a feather encased in Lucite, that plays an important role in events late in the book, but once again, the exact nature of this amulet is left vague. The feather also connects to The Goldfinch, a painting that affects Jonah when he first sees it in the company of two new friends (the same painting that is the focus of the recent novel of the same name by Donna Tartt).

And then there is Miss Pearl, aka "the City," a mysterious apparition who comes to Jonah both in dreams and in person to bolster his resolve before and during some of his trials. She's a kind of fairy godmother crossed with Mary Poppins, but her advice is mostly to stay the course, that even when things get bad, they always work out for the best. Jonah has dreams that reveal the past to him (he understands that a friend of his father's murdered his parents) and seem to reveal the future (although not always). For the most part, though, the things that happen to Jonah and his friends are the mundane insults of humanity and the cruelties people inflict upon each other.

It takes a long time for the book to kick into gear, even though it is composed primarily of four-page chapters meant to make it seem fast-paced. There is no detectable conflict for dozens of pages of fairly routine domestic drama, nor is there any antagonist until the alluring but dangerous Fiona Cassidy shows up, and even then it's not clear why she behaves the way she does. Given what readers learn about her later, her actions are even harder to understand. At a certain point, Koontz begins to foreshadow that terrible events are on the horizon. His approach is not subtle, more or less bashing readers over the head with heavy-handed references to dire consequences.

Music is central to the story and to Jonah's life. As he tells his story, Jonah regularly mentions the contemporary music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, though these references often feel awkward and forced. For his part, nine-year-old Jonah plays the swing music of his mother's and grandfather's era once he discovers (thanks to "the City") his aptitude for the piano, but it is rock and roll that will have the biggest impact on his life. Alhough Jonah is black and the story is set amidst the unrest of the 1960s, race doesn't play a major part. He effortlessly makes friends with people from all walks of life and rarely faces any racial issues.

A subplot involving one of Jonah's neighbors, Mr. Yoshioka, a somewhat retiring Japanese-American tailor who was interned in the Manzanar prison ("relocation") camp during World War II, provides some of the books more entertaining scenes. Yoshioka becomes a father figure to Jonah, and he also assembles a posse of former fellow internees to investigate a group of suspicious, larcenous characters with murderous pasts. The book also contains the obligatory OCD character in the form of another young musician who lives across the street from Jonah's grandfather, and a sociopath who pretends to be part of a violent social Cause but who really just enjoys creating chaos and believes he's so much smarter than everyone else that he can't possibly be caught.

At the end, readers are back at the beginning, with Jonah Kirk being encouraged to tell his story by his lifelong friend. Some readers may find themselves wondering what the point of it all was.

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