Challenging and welcoming at the same time, David Bendernagl's debut novel, The End of the City, was honestly not an easy read for me at first. It took me several chapters to embrace it, but around the time that a lead character, a high school senior named Ben Moor, crosses paths with a gorgeous face from his past, I was completely absorbed in the dense descriptions, the use of popular culture to define everything in terms that the characters will understand, and the very odd alternating chapters about a super-assassin with a dangerous mission and powerful obstacles.
It has the opportunity to indulge and show off such remarkably vivid detail because it's so darn dense. It took me about forty pages to get caught up with the writer's style, because the alternating chapters really did a number on my expectations and notions. The strange story of the criminal assassin - seeming, early on, as a harmless fantasy into which Ben regularly drifts - is very heavy on plot and character-building by way of a tough-guy monologue. But while quite a lot happens there, very little, by comparison, seems to take place in Ben's high school in the DC suburbs. But it is told so beautifully, and with such color and description, that it sucked me in completely. Then, as the walls between the two stories begin to crumble, I was very alert to what would happen next.
I'm almost certain that I missed the first occurrence of this, but the walls in this novel don't just crumble in one direction. I am not as close a reader as I should be, which occasionally means that repeat readings can reveal brilliant surprises. I'm two-thirds of the way through Special Topics in Calamity Physics for the second time and smiling ear to ear at all the foreshadowing that I missed. But anyway, there's a great surprise when the super-assassin lets on that this isn't simply a story about a teen fantasizing about a more interesting life. If that doesn't make you sit up and pay attention, you must not enjoy reading very much.
I found myself wondering about the truth of the narrative, waiting for a floor-level collapse along with the walls. How much should we / Ben trust this girl from his past? Is her name - shared with a member of the X-Men - a coincidence, does it play into the pop culture-heavy story, or is it a prediction? It's great fun, and this comes happily recommended for people interested in denser reads that don't follow convention.